Sure to be one of the buzzier commercial prospects coming out of Sundance this year, “Dope” is a buoyant teenage caper that has at least as much in common with John Hughes-style high-school comedies as it does with most ‘hood narratives involving drugs, gangs and crime. That mix risks silliness at times, but there’s so much playful energy and wit to Rick Famuyiwa’s indie-est project since “The Wood” (1999) that few viewers will mind. A soundtrack featuring new songs by Pharrell Williams will be a big plus in promoting a film that might conceivably fall between arthouse and mainstream camps theatrically, but should play well to any wider audiences it reaches.
High-school senior Malcolm (Shameik Moore) embodies one cliche demographically: He’s a poor black Los Angeleno supported by a single working mom (Kimberly Elise), his father long gone (back to Africa, in fact). But in other ways, he embodies something else entirely. He, as well as best friends Jib (Tony Revolori, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), are all about “white stuff” — meaning they like things that most in their black Inglewood neighborhood consider White People Territory, including classic ’90s hip-hop culture, BMX biking, getting good grades and miscellaneous geek fixations. They’ve even formed their own punk band. This just gets them regularly picked on by gangbangers in and out of school; going home each day, they run a gauntlet of bullying jocks, Bloods and dealers.
One of the latter, Dom (A$AP Rocky) turns a chance encounter into an excuse to use Malcolm as go-between in his attempts to woo Nakia (Zoe Kravitz), the cornrowed beauty his messenger boy was already crushing on. This results in all of the above characters intersecting at a club for Dom’s birthday party that night. When the birthday celebrant’s backroom drug deal turns into a gun melee, Malcolm scores points with Nakia by ushering her to safety. It’s not until the next day that he realizes he’s unknowingly ushered something else out — Dom stuck $100,000 worth of Ecstasy into the high schooler’s backpack.
Apprising Diggy and Jib of his predicament, Malcolm is determined to get rid of the stuff before he’s killed, or before its detection kills his hopes of Ivy League enrollment. But it turns out Dom is now temporarily behind bars, and fully armed others are already pursuing the missing goods. Instructions to hand them over to Dom’s surrogate results in a mid-film comic highlight embroiling the three youths in possible virginity loss (to Chanel Iman’s libidinous Lily), jamming in the home studio of a rich kid (Quincy Brown), fleeing a fast-food-joint shootout, and just making it to an appointment with a Harvard interviewer (Roger Guenveur Smith). After that mess, the kids decide they might as well sell the drugs themselves, using a hacker/dealer/wigger, Will (Blake Anderson) to show them the ropes, and choosing Bitcoin as their legality-evading transaction payment.
By the time that scheme has gone viral (as does the protags’ band, via YouTube), the helmer’s freewheeling screenplay has cheerfully snapped any remaining tether to reality. At this point, a movie hitherto crammed to the gills with incident overcompensates by doing a little too much preachy telling rather than showing in its last stretch, as if it weren’t already obvious that its heart is in the right place — as opposed to, you know, the blithely pro-drug-dealing wrong place. But the fun momentum of “Dope’s” breakneck plotting and snappy dialogue easily overcome any momentary attack of earnestness.
The cast, drawn from comedy, rap, TV, modeling and other spheres, is sharply on form throughout, as is Famuyiwa’s direction; the pic’s esprit is amplified by every editorial trick in the book, from split-screen to freeze-frames. Rachel Morrison’s widescreen lensing provides plenty of equally antic eye candy, abetted by colorful design contributions. The crowded various-artists soundtrack is first-rate, not least the couple songs allegedly created by the protags’ punk trio, Oreo.