Grade-A student Malcolm (Moore) becomes the unwilling custodian of a gangsta's stash of MDMA.
There is something of the early work of Danny Boyle about Dope. Like Shallow Grave or Trainspotting, writer-director Rick Famuyiwa’s whirling dervish of a film is funny, irreverent and pop culturally aware, mixing up drama and comedy, styles and genres with gleeful abandon. It gets bogged down a bit in its final act but for most of its running time, Dope is an exhilarating shot of adrenaline.
Set in a crime-infested LA neighbourhood nicknamed The Bottoms, Dope invokes the spirit of Boyz N The Hood-style dramas but immediately goes its own way. The teen Nigerian-American hero, Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is a straight-A geeky student, devoted to “shit white people like” — skateboards, Donald Glover, manga, going to Harvard — and his friends, mouthy Jib (The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Tony Revolori) and mellow lesbian Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). Immediately you like these kids, be they rocking out in punk band Awreeoh (say it out loud) or debating masturbation, Famuyiwa keeping things light and bright, but the skewering of what the character specs traditionally are for young, black protagonists remains pointed.
Soon Malcolm’s attraction to equally bright Nakia (Zoë Kravitz in charming mode) leads him to a club, a shooting and a getaway with a bag full of MDMA. At this point, the film turns into a lively caper flick, full of incident (there is neat use of an iPhone ), twists and turns, all parlayed into playful filmmaking flair. Best known for 1999’s The Wood, Famuyiwa has so much to say — Dope touches base with bitcoin, college applications etiquette, religious attitudes to lesbianism (“pray away the gay”), drones and the golden age of ’90s rap — but he interweaves his concerns with a light touch that never feels laboured. A scene in which a sensitive hippie (Blake Anderson) argues with the trio that A Tribe Called Quest’s Sucka Nigga gives him licence to use the N-word is hilarious.
In the end, perhaps the film suffers from a surfeit of ideas. The gang’s scheme to get rid of the drugs, which smacks of a Risky Business-style form of entrepreneurial spirit, has so much detail, it dissipates the verve. Some of the comic cameos feel as if they go on too long. But as US indies go, this is a colourful, energetic delight that has the feel of a great mixtape. It also introduces a breakout star in Shameik Moore. Sporting cinema’s best flattop since Kid met Play, Moore is an intelligent, versatile, extremely likable presence, an everyman who holds the film together when it threatens to fly off in every direction. Growing up in the Bottoms might not chime with your rites of passage (this is a high school that has a drug dog at the entrance), but Moore and Famuyiwa will make you care.
A smart riposte to the hood drama stereotype. Dope is funny, stylish and mostly exuberant fun.