Have you seen a movie about teenagers, particularly of the male variety, ever? If so, then you’ll recognize most of the building blocks for Dope. But Rick Famuyiwa’s movie is not just another module off the genre assembly line. This is a slick, tricky high school comedy about angst and discovery that shuffles moods, influences, and plots like a talented and overeager but slightly undertrained three-card Monte hustler.
The sleight-of-hand is concentrated primarily in Malcolm (Shameik Moore), the deceptively placid nerd just trying to survive his last year of high school. Behind his timid demeanor, though Malcolm harbors strong tastes and a sturdy will. Everybody else in his Bloods- and dealers-littered Inglewood neighborhood (which denizens call the Bottom) follows a code of strictly up-to-date street fashion. But Malcolm, along with his friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori) are layered in ‘90s style. Their tastes run to old VHS tapes of Yo MTV Raps!, MC Hammer pants, and for Malcolm, an architectural flat-top haircut. Above all, they share an abiding love of ’90s hiphop. Unfortunately for Malcolm, his shoes are current enough to be regularly stolen off his feet by the kind of classmates who love slamming geeks like him into lockers.
In keeping with his thoughtful protagonists, Famuyiwa starts things off in a mellow fashion. The half-ironic mellifluous narration (courtesy of producer Forest Whitaker) lays out the daily frustrations and limitations of life in the Bottom. Malcolm, Diggy, and Jib wish somebody would develop an app to help them avoid the knots of gangbangers filming on the street for their YouTube channel. In the meantime, the three friends use their Facebook pages to flaunt their affection for what gets sneered at as “white people shit” — skateboards, manga, Donald Glover, and “getting good grades.” It’s all a self-aware and yet sincere performance of complicated subversion, heightened by Diggy’s status as an out and proud lesbian (sometimes competing with the boys for girls’ attention), as well as playing in their punk band, Oreo.
At the same time that his heroes are tweaking the Bottom’s social and racial paradigms, Famuyiwa delivers a fun summertime film that doesn’t ignore the tough realities of its setting. A seemingly offhand conversation between a stammering Malcolm and sly drug dealer Dom (rapper A$AP Rocky) about the supposed golden age of hiphop (pro: Public Enemy, con: MC Hammer) is both funny and shadowed with menace. That said, the film’s dueling imperatives don’t always work so well together, such as a scene where a shooting that leaves a GameBoy covered in blood leaves a sour aftertaste.
Once the plot is established — the three friends find themselves burdened with Dom’s stash of drugs and a large gun — the action turns into a tweaked version of many other films, from Fast Times at Ridgemont High to Superbad, in which high school seniors blast through a lifetime’s worth of adventure in a matter of days. Starting with a love triangle among Malcolm, Dom, and striving good girl Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), events accelerate quickly through a nightclub shootout and a knotty drug-dealing scheme that ropes in Molly, Bitcoin, and social media memes in a kind of new-millennium free-for-all. Running on a parallel track is straight-A student Malcolm’s interview for Harvard, an application process his counselor warns he’s already sabotaged by writing an essay titled “A Research Thesis to Discover Ice Cube’s Good Day”.
There are times when Dope can feel like it’s just name-checking influences instead of creating an organic story. The soundtrack is heavy with Tribe Called Quest, a white-guy comic-relief stoner-hacker (Blake Sherwood) shows up late (to be fair, he does provide a few needed laughs at a point when the plot is starting to trip over its own feet). But the movie sometimes seems like a string along which Famuyiwa can hang references to Anonymous and Occupy Wall Street. Nevertheless, its aesthetic and formal jolts are a welcome contrast to the twee Criterion fakery of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl or the faux-nihilism of Project X.
Most astutely, and despite the kids’ wiry optimism about forging their own paths, Dope doesn’t wholly grant the fiction that Malcolm and his friends will avoid all the traps ahead of them. Faced daily with judgments about their nerdhood, the kids know the odds are against them. But as the curiously uplifting, fourth-wall-busting finale suggests, Malcolm isn’t going to let that stop him.