Shameik Moore (I guess best known for Cartoon Network's sketch show, Incredible Crew) stars as Malcolm, a self proclaimed geek who lives in "the Bottom," a rough neighborhood in LA, where every corner poses a threat to him and his two best friends, Diggy (Kiersey Clemons from Transparent), a lesbian who dresses like a boy, and Jib (Tony Revolori from The Grand Budapest Hotel). All three love comic books, skateboarding, playing original music in their punk band, getting good grades, and 1990s hip hop. Malcolm fashions his hair like Kid from Kid 'n Play and wears acid washed jeans and colorful shirts. It's an understatement that they stick out in their inner city high school. Most days they slip by unnoticed, but there are times when Malcolm is hassled by punks who steal his Jordan high tops.
Malcolm is destined for greatness and determined to get into Harvard. He just has to get out of his neighborhood.
One afternoon, while trying to avoid a group of thugs in one alley, Malcolm takes a wrong turn and runs into Dom (A$AP Rocky), a charismatic drug dealer. Intrigued by Malcolm's earnestness and high IQ, Dom (not your stereotypical movie dealer; his IQ seems up there with Malcolm's) asks our hero to deliver a message to a beautiful young woman named Nakia (Zoe Kravitz). A series of back and forths lead to Malcolm getting an invite to Dom's birthday party at a local club.
Diggy and Jib convince Malcolm to go, and the three best friends wind up at an out of control bash, surrounded by booze and beautiful women. It's the best night ever, until the cops raid a drug deal going on in the back room. Dom has some 30 + keys of MDMA that could send him away for a long time. Desperate, he hides the Molly and a loaded gun in Malcolm's innocent looking backpack.
The next day, Malcolm discovers the drugs and the gun and gets caught in the middle of two drug dealers looking for the merchandise. From there the movie takes off as Malcolm, Diggy and Jib try to figure out how to get rid of the drugs, all while he prepares for the SATs and an interview for Harvard.
Before you rush off thinking this is some high jinks comedy, let me warn you, there is REAL DANGER in Dope, established early by a scene depicting the shooting death of a no name character. Famuyima is not afraid to get you laughing out loud (and Dope is really funny) before jolting you with an act of violence, such as a security guard getting beat up or shotgun blasts tearing apart the chests of drug dealers. And because he has written three wonderful characters, and these characters are so well inhabited by the actors portraying them, you will feel dread as the movie progresses. You will ear for Malcolm, Diggy and Jib, and you really hope that they make it out of the movie okay. Dope reminded me of Spike Lee's early films, ones that mixed humor with deep seriousness, and gave you something to chew on after you left the theater.
Famuyima has made a movie that is essentially a nostalgic 90s hip-hop movie and hid it inside a contemporary setting. Cell phones, iPads and Bit-coin are all central to the plot, but the characters aren't device happy. Famuyima found a way to incorporate modern gadgets into his old school story without making it feel forced or tacked on.
Besides a killer soundtrack full of great rap songs by Public Enemy, Naughty by Nature, A Tribe Called Quest and Eric B & Rakim, Dope features outstanding original songs written by Pharrell Williams that are performed by the trio's punk band, Aweeroh. Williams serves as one of the film's executive producers. Forest Whitaker was one of Dope's producers and provides narration throughout the movie.