One imagines that the elevator pitch for Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope was simple: "It’s Risky Business by way of Boyz ’n’ the Hood!" While the funny but scattered indie doesn’t quite live up to that elevated pedigree, Dope is nevertheless a hearteningly low-key change of pace from the general bombast of the summer months.
Malcolm (Shameik Moore), who has his sights on Harvard and an interview with an alumni adviser lined up, lives in the roughest part of Los Angeles. He and his friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori) are, as they put it, nerds. They’re into mid-1990s hip hop and video games, they have formed a punk trio that sings songs about getting good grades, and they suffer the predations of the thugs and jocks that roam their halls.
Famuyiwa does a good job painting a portrait of life in a world where the rule of law means little. While riding their bikes home from school one day, Malcolm and his friends are confronted with a choice: go down an alley where some gang members are shooting a YouTube video and risk incurring their wrath, or go down a street where drug dealers working the corner will try to steal their bikes. We might wonder why Malcolm, after choosing the dealers, stops when one calls him over to chat; we wonder less when, later in the film, that same drug dealer and his crew beat a bouncer half to death for saying that an underage kid can’t come into a club.
This is the life that Malcolm hopes to escape. Harvard hopeful or no, though, he’s still a young man, and young men love the ladies. So he gets suckered into going to the aforementioned drug dealer’s birthday party in the hopes of scoring some quality time with Nakia (Zoe Kravitz). Police raid the club and the drug dealer stuffs several kilos of Molly into Malcolm’s bag. Malcolm’s attempts to unload the drugs while maintaining his Ivy League ambitions constitute the remainder of the flick.
Dope is generally quite funny, carefully walking a fine line between dark humor and outright morbidity. Slightly out of place is a closing speech from Malcolm, a spoken word recitation of the personal statement he ends up sending to Harvard. Famuyiwa breaks the fourth wall, filming Malcolm in various locales as he tells audiences that he and kids like him deserve a shot at the Ivies too. Malcolm closes by answering a query about why he wants to go to Harvard with a forceful sneer: "If I was white, would you even have to ask me?"
The response got loud cheers from the preview audience, though Malcolm’s begging the question doesn’t make a ton of sense: Why would anyone doubt a black kid wants to go to Harvard? (It’s also worth noting that literally every applicant to every school is asked the same question.) Still, no one has ever lost out by appealing to the Ivy League administrators’ sense of white guilt, so it’s probably a smart play on his part.
Moore is fantastic as Malcolm, bringing just the right kind of dorky fidgetiness to the role. Clemons’ turn as Diggy, Malcolm’s lesbian best friend, is equally good. Make sure to keep an eye on her when others are speaking—her facial tics are worth the price of admission alone.
Newcomer Chanel Iman—previously a Victoria’s Secret angel—also deserves praise for bringing to life the lascivious Lily, daughter of a local drug lord whose escapades on Molly go viral. Between Dope and Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s been a great summer for models looking to break into the world of acting. One can only hope this trend continues into awards season, and beyond.