In a lot of ways, Malcolm Adekanbi (Shameik Moore, The Get Down) is a pretty typical '90s hip-hop nerd. He dresses like the Fresh Prince, spends his afternoons scouring record stores for interesting new albums and can tell you anything and everything you want to know about the history of A Tribe Called Quest. Alas, the year is 2015, which means that his fashion and pop culture preferences make him a social outcast rather than the coolest kid at his high school. Still, Malcolm's cool with it: he and his inseparable friends Jib (Tony Revolori, The Grand Budapest Hotel) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons, Transparent) are self-described “geeks” who embrace their outsider status with as much enthusiasm as they embrace old Nintendo games, bicycles and the work of kindred spirit Donald Glover.
These three kids live in “The Bottoms,” the roughest neighborhood in Inglewood, California. It's a place where violence is common enough to feel like a part of daily life, and a place where kids Malcolm's age are facing constant pressure to join one local gang or another. Malcolm has always tried to keep his head down and avoid trouble – he's a bright kid who is currently focused on trying to get into Harvard – but eventually, trouble finds him. He gets talked into helping local drug dealer Dom (hip-hop star A$AP Rocky) with a minor, fully legal transaction, and before he knows it, he's being sucked into a world of drugs, guns and violence.
This might sound like the set-up to a sobering “life in the hood” drama, but nothing could be further from the truth: Dope is a frisky, energetic, consistently entertaining cartwheel of a movie. Writer/director Rick Famuyiwa – making an impressive comeback after the clumsy, generic rom-com Our Family Wedding – takes stoner movies, teen sex comedies, crime thrillers and early Spike Lee flicks, tosses them in a blender and then shapes the pieces into something that feels as oddly unique, charismatic and likable as Malcolm himself.
One of the keys to Dope's success is that it so enthusiastically manages to capture the specifics of Malcolm's headspace. The movie works hard to ensure that we see the world the way these kids see it, filling the soundtrack with catchy '90s hip-hop jams, frequently transforming into a youthfully frantic music video of sorts and stopping dead in its tracks every time a beautiful girl shows up (even when we're focusing on Diggy... turns out that she's a lesbian, despite the fact that her deeply religious family holds a “Pray the Gay Away” session every Sunday). Even the senseless violence lurking in the background (and occasionally creeping into the foreground) is filtered through the film's very particular sensibility: depicting the shooting death of a fellow high school student, the film zooms in on a blood-spattered Game Boy as deadpan narrator Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) declares, “the real tragedy was that he was just seconds away from beating Ganon.”
This is the first time I've seen Shameik Moore in anything, but I'm sure it won't be the last. He finds a nice balance of soft-spoken sheepishness and quiet confidence that works quite well, and it's a kick to see that transform into breathless energy when he steps behind a microphone to perform one of the nerd-rock numbers he and his friends have written. Revolori's performance is so big and warm that it took me an eternity to recognize him as the timid youngster from The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Clemons has a knack for getting laughs with something as simple as a raised eyebrow. These three carry the movie, but the film keeps dealing out sharply-drawn supporting characters as it proceeds: A$AP Rocky's genial drug dealer, model Chanel Iman as a seductive exhibitionist with a serious drug habit (a combination that leads to one of the film's most broadly funny sequences), Blake Anderson (Workaholics) as a tech-savvy stoner, Rick Fox (He Got Game) as a two-faced politician, Roger Guenveur Smith (Malcolm X) as a corrupt businessman who delivers almost all of his dialogue in an intimidating whisper... the list goes on, and Dope generously gives almost all of its characters at least one or two great moments.
Admittedly, the film's energy occasionally makes it easy to overlook the fact that the story construction is pretty messy. Famuyiwa is attempting to do a lot of things at once, and sometimes he lets interesting threads wither away and die (Diggy's uncertain feelings about her sexuality, for instance) or neglects certain subplots a little too long (an appealing romance between Malcolm and a girl named Nakia – played by an effectively sly Zoe Kravitz – starts on a strong note, then disappears for what feels like an eternity). Still, it's hard to complain too much about a movie that spends nearly every minute of its running time doing something interesting.
This certainly isn't the first coming-of-age story about an awkward young misfit, but it's one of the few that finds a way to cinematically mirror the uniquely offbeat nature of its protagonist. The subculture Malcolm belongs to is an incredibly small and specific one, and it seems fitting that the film about him doesn't really resemble anything terribly familiar. Dope dances in and out of different genres from start to finish, but always marches to the beat of its own drum loop.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 103 minutes
Release Year: 2015