★ ★ ★ ★
Dope will be the only movie you see this year that pairs a detailed explanation of Bitcoins with the smooth bass of “Scenario” by A Tribe Called Quest. Writer/director Rick Famuyiwa’s coming-of-age/drug-caper comedy is a smart and refreshing take on a frequently derivative subgenre: This crowd-pleaser is a real achievement for youth-culture storytelling, and will likely be a bona fide summer hit.
Malcolm (Shameik Moore), Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), and Jib (Tony Revolori) are three geeks trying to survive their senior year of high school in Inglewood, CA. As self-described “’90s hip-hop nerds” who play in a punk band together, they have their own curated set of tastes and styles: Malcolm rocks the high-top-fade haircut and wears meticulously tucked-in floral-print button-downs, while Diggy (an androgynous and feisty lesbian) does her best TLC impression. The trio treasure old episodes of Yo! MTV Raps, the Nas album Illmatic, and digging around in record-store crates. At the same time, Malcolm is a razor-sharp straight-A student putting together his essay for his application to Harvard. On the way home from school, he comes across powerful dope dealer Dom (Rakim Mayers, better known as rapper A$AP Rocky), who commands him to pedal his bike down the block and tell the stunning Nakia (Zoë Kravitz) about the birthday party he’s throwing that evening. Malcolm and the reserved Nakia share a mutual attraction, and she promises to go only if he and his pals crash the bash and join her.
Unfortunately, a drug deal goes south at the party, and Dom slips a cache of MDMA (“molly” for you older folks) into Malcolm’s backpack before he’s pinched by the LAPD. The trio discover the stash during school the next day, setting off the breakneck second act of Dope as they debate what the hell they’re going to do with a mountain of drugs. They’re soon hounded by gang members looking to rip off Dom, which leads to a chaotic and hilarious chase across Inglewood and into the rich suburbs. When Malcolm decides that he needs to sell the drugs himself, he enlists the help of a stoner hacker (Workaholics star Blake Anderson) to set up an online store on the untraceable deep web in order to push them for Bitcoins.
The coming-of-age yarn was perfected in the ’80s thanks to John Hughes, but Famuyiwa takes that narrative away from the cushy white suburbs and transplants it to the rough neighborhoods of L.A. However, this is no Boyz ‘N the Hood — Famuyiwa uses comedy and introspection to discuss matters of race and poverty in modern America, and he’s greatly aided by a supremely talented young cast. Moore in particular is a revelation; his performance manages to navigate Malcolm’s conflicted nature with coolness and ease. His smile lights up the big screen, and his contemplations are full of conviction and gravity. The young singer/comedian seems to have found his true calling as an actor, and he’s already secured a role in the upcoming Netflix series The Get Down. Clemons and Revolori provide fantastic support for Moore, and skilled turns by A$AP Rocky and Kravitz round out a cast who help sell some of the more convoluted plot developments.
Dope is as keenly self-aware as the meticulously crafted personas of the three leads: Famuyiwa’s references to memes and twerking are matched with pointed commentary about racial issues and an homage to the late Trayvon Martin. The film depicts an era of ’90s nostalgia in which a new generation are looking back on the decade with distant admiration, and executive producer and music supervisor Pharrell Williams (with the help of co-executive producer Sean Combs) adeptly harnesses that passion by assembling a soundtrack of classic ’90s hip-hop tracks to go with all of the references to the decade.
The leads’ connection to geekdom, a term that means something very different today than it did in the past, is ultimately a defense mechanism against their harsh surroundings. Desperate to escape from the “Bottom,” the trio attach themselves to symbols and artifacts from a time gone by, grasping at anything that will set them apart from their environment. It’s a profound comment on the youth culture of a historically ignored group, one that could easily be missed by an older generation who have recently discovered the word “hipster” and are willing to throw it at anyone and anything that looks different. While the cultural subtleties of Dope will be best appreciated by younger moviegoers, this is a film that nobody should sleep on.