While nerds have taken over much of the entertainment world, Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope finds a place where they still occupy their prototypical place on the social ladder. His high school comedy set in Inglewood follows three teens whose interests put them outside of the mainstream, particularly their preference for what’s perceived as white shit like Donald Glover. Their outsider status, however, isn’t enough to keep them out of the high-stakes world around them, where random encounters have the potential to negatively and permanently impact their lives. Dope balance the absurdity of teenage life with the drama of poverty and crime, replicating the success of more serious films about disadvantaged teens like Boyz N the Hood or the Basketball Diaries while never surrendering to misery.
The threesome at the center of Dope is led by Shameik Moore’s Malcolm. His two comrades, Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), share a love of 90’s hip hop, comics, and their burgeoning punk band, Awreeoh. They daily navigate obstacles that all teens face, from bullies to college applications, as well as obstacles specific to their environment like drug dealers and gangs. The latter has forced them to adopt a dark sense of humor and opportunism, as Jib is trying to get the comic collection of a recently-murdered peer, while also adding urgency to the former. All are quick-witted and intelligent and talented, which gives them the very real chance of improving their lot in life.
While trying unsuccessfully to keep their heads down on the walks to and from school, Malcolm is drawn into being the go-between for drug dealer Dom (A$SP Rocky) and his love interest Nakia (Zoe Kravitz). Despite his misgivings about being a romantic competitor to Dom, Malcolm’s innate charm leads him to hit it off with Nakia, and she invites him to Dom’s birthday party at a club. The crew attends and has a great time, but when the party is busted, Malcolm picks up the wrong backpack and suddenly finds himself in possession of a large amount of Molly and a gun. Disposing of them becomes a multi-faceted problem, as it’s unclear who’s a well-dressed distributor and who’s a cop informant. Using the crew’s of-the-moment knowledge of the deep web and bitcoin, and an acquaintance with a white dealer they know from band camp (Blake Anderson), they become dealers themselves.
Dope never lets the viewer forget how easy it would be for a kid like Malcolm to fall into a bad situation. Before the actual disaster he lands in, random missteps could have placed him in scenarios just as unfortunate or worse. It’s slightly miraculous that he’s managed to avoid crime or serious injury thus far. The arbitrary nature of the environment is a key cruelty that the characters are always aware of, and the ability of different characters to deal with it is often in flux. The distance between image and reality comes up repeatedly, as those that appear hard are in over their heads and those that appear weak are more adept than they seem. That adaptability would make a lot of the characters ideal citizens and contributors, if only they can make it to their adult years alive or out of jail.
The environment is deadly serious, but the tone of Famuyiwa’s film is anything but. Despite the stakes, Dope is simply fun from the introductory character montages to the ending dance sequence. Famuyiwa uses all the expected cinematic tricks to communicate the ecstasy of youth, taking the baton from Sofia Coppola’s Bling Ring and Harmony Korrine’s Spring Breakers and applying dub-step and speed ramping to party scenes to communicate their breathlessness and intensity. The long process that Malcolm et al embark on to unload the drugs involves plenty of stops and starts, turning Dope into a heightened comedy of errors. Malcolm’s affinity for 90’s hip hop means the soundtrack is populated with staples from the era, from Nas to Digital Underground, and is also filled out with bouncy tracks produced by Pharell. It all conspires to successfully keep Dope’s energy level high and buoyant.
The greatest asset of Dope is the young cast, likely to break out from Dope into bigger roles after their success here. Revolori is playing the opposite of his buttoned-up Grand Budapest Hotel character to solid effect, and Clemons is a riot as the defiant Diggy. Moore is an excellent find as Malcolm, transitioning from deer-in-headlights vulnerability to a more hardened version of himself, still retaining some innocence but with more confidence in his abilities. He’s a believable dork, and a believable mastermind. The central threesome share significant chemistry with each other, easily throwing off the vibe of longtime friends.
As a film about teenagers, albeit ones with real and not just perceived problems, Dope treads familiar ground in some ways, but in others, the cast and the directorial flair means that it never approaches boring. It manages to balance the fluffy and the weighty. Famuyiwa notches a success here, if only for an extended sequence of Moore dancing to the Humpty Dance. That alone earns Dope my admiration. B