"Dope" is a crazy, funny, smart film. It's got a terrific batch of young actors, a brash original story and style from writer/director Rick Famuyiwa, and an urgent vitality that demands our attention.
It's about Malcolm, a smart kid from South-Central Los Angeles who adores 1990s hip-hop culture and dreams of getting into Harvard. You probably know that South-Central is a tough area rife with guns and drugs, and may have heard that Inglewood is at its core. The Bottoms, Malcolm's neighborhood, lives up (or down) to its nickname.
Malcolm is played by Shameik Moore, who should be on the list of every casting director in Hollywood after this. He announces himself as a performer in much the same way the cast members of "Boyz n the Hood" did nearly a quarter-century ago.
This is a bit ironic, since Malcolm is self-professed geek who regularly gets trounced upon by the school bullies and can barely speak to girls.
Life is challenging but good for Malcolm and his two best buds, Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). The trio wears vintage clothes ranging somewhere between Fresh Prince and Ice T, and Malcolm's got an impressive flat top/fade that makes his whole head stand up, and out. They're typical horny boys who yearn after girls but never get them, even Diggy, who is one herself.
They share a passion for academics and '90s music, jamming upbeat tunes in the music room after school about getting good grades, dubbing themselves Awreeoh. That's as in "Oreo," a nod to their multiracial makeup and embrace of cultural values deemed too white by their fellows.
The setup is that Malcolm is invited/cajoled by a local drug dealer, Dom (A$AP Rocky), into attending an underground party. He would probably stay away except for Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), a local stunner who is kinda/sorta linked to Dom. Malcolm, Diggy and Jib make the scene and are having a good time until a deal goes bad and bullets start flying.
Long story short, Malcolm finds himself with his backpack stuffed with Dom's heroin. The dealer wants it back, while his competitors demand the dope for themselves. Malcolm and his pals begin a confusing, scary but also uproarious journey through L.A.'s seedier parts, trying to figure out how to dispose of the stash while keeping their skins intact.
Meanwhile, Malcolm still needs to ace his S.A.T.'s and make a good impression at his interview with a Harvard alumni.
If all this sounds a little like "Risky Business" mixed with "Boyz," that's because it is. But Famuyiwa's script, while liberally borrowing elements from other movies, synthesizes them into an original and engaging pastiche.
In general I'd call it a comedy, poking fun at aspects of black and white culture, and the in-between spaces where Malcolm and his friends are trying to carve out a spot for themselves. But it's got some serious and poignant moments, too, often arriving with surprising juxtaposition to each other.
It's a hard tonal balance to strike, but Famuyiwa and his cast pull it off. It's odd to see common themes from the gangsta genre, like a strutting stand-off between two men with guns, played for chuckles. But "Dope" helps us look at familiar things in new ways, and laugh while doing it.