The hilarious and live-wire Dope plays a bit like a kid’s cartoon come to life—Archie meets Fat Albert in present-day Inglewood, CA.
This is important because the film is actually dealing with some heavy themes—the ever-present threat of violence in the inner city and the difficulty of transcending your socio-economic status. But it’s all done in such a playful, affectionate fashion—even the villains are mostly loveable—that writer/director Rick Famuyima manages to convey the strong sense that nothing bad will happen to the film’s trio of enterprising teens.
Our hero and narrator is Malcolm Adekanbi (charming Shameik Moore, in a star-making performance), a self-described geek with a hightop fade, who plays in a pop-punk band with his two best friends, and likes “white” stuff like Donald Glover, ’90s hip-hop, bitcoins, and good grades. (It’s rather telling that two of the things on Malcolm’s list—90s hip-hop and Donald Glover—are actually black. It’s a sly nod to white people appropriating black culture for coolness.)
His best friends are the multiracial Jib (Tony Revolori, the wide-eyed usher from The Grand Budapest Hotel) and the androgynous lesbian Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). Their band is actually really good (!)—no surprise since Pharrell wrote the music—and every time they set up behind their instruments, decked out in backwards baseball caps, baggy pants, and neon-colored shirts, it adds to the cartoonish vibe.
In a plot point reminiscent of Risky Business, all hell breaks out the week Malcolm is preparing for his interview to get into Harvard. He attends a party at a club, the cops bust it, and a local drug dealer named Dom (Rakim Meyers) stashes several bricks of molly and a gun in Malcolm’s backpack. From there, rival gangs are vying for the stash, plus the cops, plus a self-made mogul/drug dealer who has a surprising identity. There’s a girl, of course, played by Zoë Kravitz, sporting long braids and tiny sunglasses so that she freakishly resembles her mom, Lisa Bonet. (This movie seems to really love the 90s.) She’s trying to get her GED so Malcolm offers to tutor her in exchange for her going to prom with him.
One of the many great jokes of the film is that Malcolm is such a good kid, he’s constantly setting off his high school’s weapon and drug censor, but the cops just assume it’s on the fritz. His “geek” reputation also allows him to use the school’s always-vacant science lab to package and sell the molly—which he sells online using, yes, bitcoins.
Dope ends on a somewhat earnest note: Malcolm reads us his Harvard application essay about making false assumptions about people based on what they look like or where they live. It’s kind of facile and kind of corny, but I don’t know. . . kind of important, too.