Featuring jocks, nerds, tough guys, a zany adventure, a barf scene, a prom ticket and that embarrassment known as virginity, “Dope,” written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa, fits into the teen coming-of-age movie category. While it can’t quite escape the limits of that formula, it is an inspired, entertaining wild ride enriched by engaging characters.
Famuyiwa makes movies about friendship, self-realization and racially diverse communities, and, as with his “The Wood,” the comedy transpires in Inglewood, California. In the neighborhood called the Bottoms, daily life means getting harassed by gangs and drug dealers if you’re a geeky high-schooler like Malcolm (Shameik Moore).
Malcolm has a bus-driver mother (Kimberly Elise), an absent dad and Harvard aspirations. His best friends are lesbian Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and “14 percent African” Jib (Tony Revolori). The three share a devotion to 1990s hip-hop culture and are taunted for liking “white-people stuff.”
The craziness begins when drug dealer Dom (A$AP Rocky) involves Malcolm in his attempt to woo Nakia (Zoe Kravitz), who takes a liking to Malcolm instead. Before long, Malcolm, Jib and Diggy are partying at Dom’s birthday bash. A shootout occurs.
Soon, they discover bricks of MDMA in Malcolm’s backpack. When their predicament thickens, they decide to sell the dope themselves.
A restaurant gunfight, an exhibitionist rich girl (Chanel Iman), a white hacker (Blake Anderson) who yearns to use the n-word as a “term of endearment,” Bitcoin transactions, split-screen images, and, of course, a prom invitation are a smidgen of what ensues.
Some antics are funnier than others. The Malcolm-Nakia romance seems to exist largely so the nerd can get the girl.
Yet Famuyiwa sharply blends the comedy with prescient, relevant social material. He addresses how school administrators don’t encourage black students to excel academically. He examines how people perceive themselves and others based on race and class. He presents a lively cultural vibe combining 1990s styles with current digital sophistication.
A satisfying teen romp with some substance, the film contains the worthy-misfit appeal found in John Hughes’ films and hints of Quentin Tarantino and early Spike Lee, along with Famuyiwa’s own brand of humanity-rich storytelling.
Moore is impressive as the decent Malcolm. His performance gives the movie a strong human anchor. Clemons and Revolori are similarly likable as Malcolm’s pals.
The three friends are an engaging force, whether they’re nerds running a drug operation in the school lab or performing as a punk band. The band is one of the movie’s many small components that up the running time to an excessive 115 minutes, but seem too vital to lose.
Starring: Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, Zoe Kravitz
Written and directed by: Rick Famuyiwa
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes