Sometimes a movie arrives just when it’s needed. Dope is the antidote to nearly any movie you’re likely to see this summer. It’s a sharp, imaginative teen comedy about a young man named Malcolm (Shameik Moore), who’s a black geek and the lead singer in a punk band which comprises himself and his two best friends, Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). Malcolm lives in Inglewood, California, where his taste and ambitions are constantly at odds with the cultural stream of his environment. Nobody takes him seriously because he doesn’t dress like most of the kids at his school, or act like them, or like the same things as them. Malcolm sports a flat top, is obsessed with 90s hip hop, and wants to go to Harvard, a school that is, according to Malcolm’s teachers, utterly out of his grasp, despite his excellent grades. The movie focuses on the unexpected means by which Malcolm and his friends become drug dealers, and the way they use their outsider personas as protection from suspicion.
Writer-director Rick Famiyuwa has an exuberant love of cinematic storytelling. He’s created a lush mix of characters in Dope, all of them well-drawn, and fitted the movie around them. Nothing feels formulaic in Dope, and Famiyuwa delights in the many surprises that he throws our way. And yet, none of those surprises feels forced or poorly conceived. But they aren’t necessarily realistic, either. People who are sticklers for the tyranny of realism will be challenged by the ridiculous—and wonderful—excesses of Dope.
The film has a lot to say about how we view people of color, how we have one version of a black teenager living in the hood. Even the people appointed as his advocates, like his college advisor, are essentially there to keep him down, to lower his expectations about life. And Famiyuwa, with keen, masterful skill, pulls the rug out from any assumptions we might make about Malcolm. When he discovers a gun and a bag of drugs in his backpack (on school premises, during a routine drug search), Malcolm panics, but soon realizes that his reputation as a black “nerd” protects him from any suspicion of guilt. Malcolm is the good kid. He doesn’t do drugs or go to parties or join gangs or break the law. He dreams big—isn’t cute that he wants to go to Harvard?
But what of the ending, when Malcolm writes an admittedly compelling admissions essay? Is Malcolm using his race as a buzz word to guilt the admissions committee into accepting him? Or is he simply pointing out their own inherent racism? Malcolm’s grades are clearly exceptional, and his entrepreneurial skills, if unorthodox, are impressive. He’s been branded by a white person’s idea of “The Hood” and the assumption that anyone who comes from “The Hood” must be a drug-addled thug. Ultimately, Dope is movie about expectations, and how those expectations expose our shallow perceptions of people. They also allow people to act differently without being noticed, and this can become a powerful enabler. Sometimes, the kids really are the smartest ones in the room, and Dope quickly establishes itself as one of the smartest (and most satisfying) teen comedies in recent memory.
With Kimberly Elise, Chanel Iman, Tyga, Blake Anderson, A$AP Rocky, Keith Stanfield, Rick Fox, Amin Joseph, and Forest Whitaker.