A breakout hit at both Sundance and Cannes this year, writer/director Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope is equal parts Risky Business, The Breakfast Club, and Boyz n the Hood. It feels like a John Hughes movie, in that it’s very much about teenagers and their lives but isn’t for kids, and instead of suburban Illinois Dope is set in Inglewood, California, in a tough neighborhood called “the Bottoms”. Trade Anthony Michael Hall for Shameik Moore, Ally Sheedy for Kiersey Clemons, Jon Cryer for Tony Revolori, and Demi Moore for Zoe Kravitz and you have Dope, a twenty-first century remix of the teen odyssey set in the inner city.
Dope revolves around Malcolm, a smart, nerdy high school student obsessed with 90s-era hip hop, along with his equally dweeby friends, Jib (Revolori) and Diggy (Clemons). Together they have a punk band called Awreeoh and they wear over the top 90s fashions, and they are just trying to get through high school without succumbing to any of the negative stereotypes they’re saddled with as “urban youths”. Malcolm wants to go to Harvard, but a series of unfortunate events involving a local drug dealer, Dom, a bag of molly, and a shady local businessman conspire to put Malcolm’s whole future in jeopardy. When tasked with getting rid of the molly, Malcolm starts a Bitcoin-funded drug business.
Dope is a very funny movie, but then it hits real emotional beats as well. It’s similar to Me and Earl and the Dying Girl in that regard—and also in that there is some gimmicky filmmaking on display, but not enough to get in the way of the story. Like Thomas Mann in Dying Girl, Moore has to carry this movie almost single-handedly, as Malcolm is the only fully-drawn character. He does so with tremendous charm and energy—Moore gives a phenomenal performance that really, if there is any justice, ought to get some attention around award season.
What Dope does best is combine rapid-fire pop culture references with the bleak reality of Malcolm’s world. A funny conversation about the concept of the “slippery slope” takes place around a violent beating; one of the more spoofy characters in the movie, Jaleel (Quincy Brown, P. Diddy’s son), talks tough but misunderstands the term “lunch” and sets off a shootout; memes enable Malcolm to more efficiently sell drugs. The movie is also concerned with double standards, and though the conversation between two white frat boys about why they can’t use the N-word when reciting rap lyrics is funny, the movie shows just how easy it would be for Malcolm to succumb to the total lack of expectations the world has for him, despite his obvious intelligence.
Dope isn’t a perfect movie—it’s a little messy in the middle and it false starts on the ending a couple times—but Famuyiwa’s direction is confident enough and Moore’s performance is charismatic enough to pull it through the rough patches intact. There are some perfectly pitched jokes about double standards and stereotypes, all of which land, but there’s sincere optimism underneath the hip hop references. It’s a really terrific movie, sharp-witted and funny and frank without being cynical. You should go see it. Right now. Seriously. Stop reading and go see Dope.