High school is a transformative experience, to say the least. There’s the bullying, the lusting after the opposite sex, and the encroaching threat of a life after graduation. Dope encapsulates the risks of being the nerdy underdog in an environment that doesn’t encourage it. But is this a story about overcoming obstacles in a world built to make it difficult? No, or at least it is when the narrative deems it convenient to shoehorn that relatable struggle in. With hip-hop-fueled personality in spades, Dope tries to be many things: drug comedy, coming-of-age drama and action farce. Luckily, its scattershot narrative is almost always exciting and a pleasure to watch.
Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is a high school senior living in Inglewood, California, with a style defined by ’90s hip-hop. He has aspirations for Harvard but his inner-city living and education aren’t conducive to his dreams. After he gets invited to a drug dealer’s birthday party, Ecstasy (aka Molly) is planted in his backpack following an awry police raid. Now in a sticky situation, Malcolm and his friends, Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori), are forced into an adventure that will change their lives. For better or worse? That’s up to how many debauched situations they can wrangle through coming out unscathed.
First things first, Dope is brimming with personality partially due to the amazing soundtrack it employs. To give some context, Pharrell Williams executive produced the film and his personality leaks onto more than just the screen. With tracks by Digable Planets, Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, Naughty By Nature and Korn, Dope rocks along to the same beat that its musical contributors created. That’s one thing that the film does incredibly, finding music to reflect a certain situation that Malcolm and the gang are in without marring the dramatic or comedic landing of the narrative. Then again, A$AP Rocky and Tyga play supporting roles in Malcolm’s journey, to comedic degree, of course.
Shameik Moore is the breakout star of the film. His Malcolm expertly balances nerdy idiosyncrasies and the dramatic heft required by him. His nerdy personality is never posited as a charming façade that cracks off when faced with trials and tribulations, it actually guides him to putting trust in the right people. Tony Revolori, who played Zero Moustafa from The Grand Budapest Hotel, turns out another great performance despite his character being paper-thin and serving the story’s hero. His comedic interruptions of dialogue always inspire laughs. The same goes for Kiersey Clemons as the tomboyish lesbian friend, Diggy. The film benefits from not treating her character as a stereotype, letting her decisions define her, not her title.
Choosing what plotline will define Dope is where things get rocky. At one point, the film turns into Malcolm’s statement on defying the predefined stereotype put upon him by society since he’s an inner-city black kid. His third-act monologue about why he should be accepted into Harvard hits a home run and in turn reflects upon how much of a struggle life is for people, especially minorities. But this is all a third-act revelation, not a natural delineation brought on by two-thirds of preceding exploration. When Dope is an action comedy, it has an evenhanded distribution between laughs and gunshots. When Dope is a drama revolving around Malcolm and Nakia, a girl with similar aspirations who has taken a liking to Malcolm, things take a turn for the generic. Instead of developing this relationship throughout the film, the narrative takes many detours before returning to their development. The love story between the two feels forced towards the end, further diluting whatever the movie as a cohesive whole is supposed to be about.
Dope soars when it settles down on satirizing the EDM-induced culture that revolves around the drug Malcolm must get rid of. As is with a lot of movies today, Dope shows the growth and word of mouth about the drug he is selling via social media. Insert a fast-cut party sequence here and faux social media posts filled with slang about the drug there, and you have the middle of the film. Luckily, the narrative never condones the drug and uses it more as comedic effect when people are inhaling it. Comedic relief abounds, but the main characters never think the drug is something that could make their life better nor do they ever take it.
As it stands now, Dope is a hodgepodge of good ideas being thrown together with an admirable amount of care. What you’re seeing in theaters is the trimmed down 103-minute version created after the long cut debuted at Sundance. If you’re looking for a rollicking good time upheld by an amazing soundtrack, I tepidly recommend Dope.