Early in Dope, Malcolm (Shameik Moore) gets roped into shuttling messages back and forth between a drug dealer named Dom (Rakim Mayers, aka A$AP Rocky) and a beautiful girl named Nakia (Zoë Kravitz). The scene sums up the protagonist's predicament: He's caught between worlds. An opening narration by Forest Whitaker—who also happens to be a producer—identifies Malcolm and his friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) as geeks. But being a brainy kid in the Bottoms neighborhood of Inglewood, California, ain't easy. For one thing, the usual nerd nemesis, the bully, is much more heavily armed. In addition to the feuding cliques at school, there are also the Crips and Bloods to keep track of. And your carefully researched essay on pinpointing the date of Ice Cube's "good day" is probably not enough to get you into Harvard.
In his senior year of high school, Malcolm is pretty much resigned to his geeky fate. With graduation coming up and his grades looking good, his Ivy League goals are tantalizingly close. His performance as a messenger with encyclopedic knowledge of 1990s hip-hop endears him to Dom, who invites Malcolm to his birthday party. Malcolm hesitates, but Jib and Diggy want to live a little before heading out for college, so they manage to navigate the doorman and gain entrance to the coolest party any of them have ever seen. Things are going great until a back-room drug deal goes bad. When the bullets stop flying and most of the partygoers have been hauled away to jail, Malcolm discovers that Dom stashed a bunch of MDMA and a gun in his backpack. And so he and his friends are dragged into an underworld of crime and corruption as they try to unload the dope without getting arrested, killed, or missing their SATs.
With Dope, writer/director Rick Famuyiwa has given the teen-movie genre a 21st-century upgrade. He's wrapped a lot of different strands into the story's DNA. The most obvious antecedent is Risky Business, Tom Cruise's 1983 turn as a squeaky-clean prep-school-kid-turned-accidental-pimp. But that movie was set in the lily-white Chicago neighborhood of North Shore. Dope's protagonists are a black kid named after Malcolm X, a Hispanic kid who says anscestry.com told him he was 14 percent African, and a black lesbian who slaps their white hacker friend Will (Blake Anderson) every time he says "nigga". There's a little bit of Pulp Fiction in the occasional time-bending flashback and the script's gleeful wordiness, and a little bit of Spike Lee in the occasional fourth-wall breaking. But there's much about Dope that is new and fresh. Since smartphones became ubiquitous less than a decade ago, the rules storytellers have been following since Shakespeare have had to change. Lack of communication can no longer be used as plot devices. A couple of quick text messages would have saved Romeo and Juliet from suicide, for example. Dope is one of the first movies I've seen where the new realities of electronic communication, not to mention Darknet, Bitcoin, and pervasive surveillance, are seamlessly integrated into a non-sci-fi story.
Just as Risky Business made a star out of Cruise, Dope could easily make a star out of Moore. He's in almost every scene, and he carries Malcolm's journey from nervous geek to confident college kid with a confidence many more experienced actors would envy. Revolori, last seen as Zero in The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Clemons both nail their parts, as does A$AP Rocky, who could easily make the same leap from rapper to actor that Ludacris did after Hustle & Flow.
My only real criticism of Dope is that it is overstuffed. The opening voice-over seems unnecessary, and soon trails off. There are so many characters and overlapping story lines that some of them feel underdeveloped. But if the worst I can say about your movie is that you have too many ideas, that's a good place to be. Dope premiered at Sundance alongside another high school movie, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which scored big at the awards ceremony. Both are fine films, but I think the Sundance voters got it wrong. Dope has the makings of a cult classic that high schoolers will be watching for years to come.