“Congratulations. You have found your iPhone.”
Malcolm Adekanbi (Shameik Moore) is a geek. You don’t even need the opening line of Rick Famuyiwa‘s Inglewood-set high school adventure Dope to state as much once we meet him. A self-proclaimed “oreo” with straight-As, constant beat-downs by Bloods-member Bug (Keith Stanfield), and Harvard aspirations his guidance counselor (Bruce Beatty) even scoffs at, the time to finally escape and be what his neighborhood loves to mock him for has arrived. SATs are around the corner, an interview with an Ivy League-alum in the position to write a recommendation is on the books, and so far he’s survived adolescence in the “Bottoms” with nothing but a few pairs of shoes stolen. Local drug dealer Dom (Rakim ‘A$AP Rocky’ Mayers) and his girl Nakia (Zoë Kravitz) arrive to change everything.
The film’s a steady stream of stereotypes and clichés turned on their heads before culminating in a profoundly honest application essay posing the audience a question of whether or not they’d ask a model citizen with Malcolm’s credentials, “Why Harvard?” if he were white. It’s a pointed query for sure, but definitely not something to dismiss because our environments and preconceptions do shape a lot about our world. Just listening to his counselor call him arrogant for thinking the school a possibility or seeing Councilman Blackmon’s (Rick Fox) effusive smile at the thought that Malcolm and his two best friends (Kiersey Clemons‘ Diggy and Tony Revolori‘s Jib) joined a national science competition shows how rooted in failure Famuyiwa’s hometown is. Funnily enough, the trio was actually feeding that stigma.
Through a crazy happenstance of fate, Malcolm, Diggy, and Jib aren’t working on science in the chemistry laboratory. They’re cutting down kilos of Molly to distribute around town. The wrinkle is that they’ve no clue what they’re doing in that endeavor and want nothing to do with it. Unfortunately, a spur-of-the-moment departure from their late night ritual of internet surfing to attend the aforementioned Dom’s birthday party has saddled them with a dangerous mission. In the haste of a police smack down, their newfound friend decided to hide his stash in Malcolm’s backpack. Discovering it the next day at school, our Harvard-hopeful discovers he’s been thrown in the middle of a turf war and his freedom can only be assured if he’s able to sell it all himself.
These kids become embroiled in a gunfight, drug den, Dark Web shenanigans, and countless situations comprised of fish-out-of-water ignorance, delusional airs of grandeur, or the hard fact that nothing’s ever what it seems. And it all revolves around Malcolm as a last-second eye-opening experience to understand what he’s missed on the straight and narrow. Sometimes it’s innocuous events like Dom acting hard on a corner while waxing on about 90s hip-hop or deadly as supposed upstanding business professionals get outed as criminal kingpins. No matter what these periphery players do, though, the real fun is Malcolm’s shy teen’s reaction. For someone dressing like he just wrapped an episode of “Yo! MTV Raps”, finding himself propositioned by a naked, coked-out rich girl isn’t an everyday smooth transition.
This is also where Dope excels as a deeper look at prejudices, bullying, and thinking beyond the expectations placed upon us. Malcolm’s tested throughout the movie to “prove his worth” in ways he never imagined he’d have to consider. A girl plays a role—the reason he agrees to attend Dom’s party is because Nakia will be there—but that’s not the entire story when there’s also an allure to hang with the “cool kids”. After years of taking what Bug gave and biding time until college could free his disparate soul, the opportunity to let loose was too attractive to ignore. And when the rabbit hole threatens to consume him, he must step up to the plate with a plan only his specific life experiences could conjure.
Malcolm digs inside himself to find an identity beyond the unassuming geek who has his school’s security guard believing the metal detector broken rather than fathom having to check his bag. While people in positions of authority allow his academic success and squeaky-clean record to render him invisible, however, he can’t help be the sore thumb for the streets to constantly press down until he can no longer take it. This is the moment that cuts through the comedy—easy laughs from Blake Anderson‘s pothead hacker Will Sherwood or high-brow grammar giggles like Quincy Brown‘s poser Jaleel’s inconsistencies with replacing hard- and soft-Cs with different letters—to see the scared yet determined man willing to go the distance to punch his own ticket East.
It’s a star-making turn for Moore with the perfect mix of indie quirk and authentic emotion necessary to carry a story that cuts from a gangbanger holding up a city bus to an out-of-her-mind girl (Chanel Iman) from the Hills urinating in front of a coffee shop wearing nothing but a robe. Famuyiwa ensures we’re never bored of the comedy, drama, or adventure by weaving everything together in a believably contrived fashion his characters own upon realizing it simultaneously alongside us. Pharrell Williams assists Moore, Clemons, and Revolori by writing catchy tunes for their in-movie band Awreeoh, the action hits kinetic montages of social media excess, and the absurdity of three kids with their heads on straight bumbling through the criminal underworld hits mass appeal.
Famuyiwa does attempt to reveal some secrets in an unnecessarily twisty way with his climax. But while I could have done without this smug wink, it isn’t enough to ruin what came before since the revelation is totally in tune with Malcolm’s character. I’d nitpick it having a hastily collaged ending tying up loose ends too, but I liked seeing how everything personal and academic plays out for him considering the outrageous journey taken to achieve it for better or worse. And thankfully, no matter how insane things get, Diggy and Jig stay the course—each adding their own situational laughs (her lesbian dressed like a boy and his fourteen percent African ethnicity) and empathetic strength. Dope‘s literally a 90s heart-and-soul coming-of-age comedy for the Bitcoin era.
courtesy of Open Road Films