Dope is probably the most loving tribute to the 90’s, that’s actually set in contemporary America. Our young protagonist dresses in a geeky 90’s wardrobe, idolizes 90’s hip-hop, and wears his flattop haircut like Will Smith in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Although he wishes that he grew up in the 90’s, chances are he’d miss modern innovations like iPhones, YouTube, and Bitcoin. In many respects, it doesn’t matter what era Dope is set in since its themes of race, social class, and self-discovery are multigenerational.
Dope is one of two coming-of-age films that broke out at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, the other being Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Of course the parallels between these films stops there. Dope is more like if you put Risky Business, Pineapple Express, and Boyz n the Hood in a blender. The result is a unique blend that’s funny, poignant, and comes complete with a killer soundtrack curated by Executive Producer Pharrell Williams.
The film stars Shameik Moore as Malcolm, an African American nerd, but not of the Steve Urkel variety. Brought up in a Los Angeles ghetto, Malcolm is habitually taunted for his fascination with old school media and aspirations to attend Harvard by his fellow schoolmates. Fortunately, Malcolm has two best friends to get him through high school: Kiersey Clemons as Diggy, a lesbian everybody mistakes for a boy, and Tony Revolori as Jib, who casually uses the N-word since he’s technically 14% African.
Malcolm gets himself and his homies into a heap of trouble when he winds up with a backpack full of drugs. Although he attempts to return it to the drug dealers, Malcolm eventually finds that the only way he can get rid of the dope is if he sells it himself. Throughout the film, you’ll often find yourself wondering if Malcolm is smart or arrogantly in over his head. Then again, you could ask the same thing about Walter White. Either way, Moore gives a multi-layered performance as a character that provides an identifiable voice for African American youth.
While there have been numerous wonderful movies over the past thirty years about maturing teenagers, from Sixteen Candles to The Spectacular Now, there’s no denying that a majority of them hone in on whites. Rick Famuyiwa’s film is notable for not only speaking to adolescent black culture, but also doing so with intelligence, style, and originality. It’s about ten minutes too long and the ultimate resolution is arguably a little too sunny for a story that goes to some dark places. Most of the time, though, Ramuyiwa finds just the right tone in a highly entertaining picture.