“Dope” wants to do many things. At first, it unfolds a coming-of-age comedy drama about three adolescent kids struggling in their rough neighbourhood, and then it tries to be a crime story accompanied with drug and shooting, and then it plays a bit of music, and then it attempts to give us social messages during one soapbox scene. The overall picture is not that coherent because of its heavy-handed plot and inconsistent tones, but at least it is mildly entertaining as rolling around here and there through its bouncy energy and good performances.
At the beginning, the narration by Forest Whitaker, who also participated in the production of the film, introduces to us its three high school student characters: Malcolm (Shameik Moore), Jib (Tony Revolori, fresh from his breakthrough turn in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014)), and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). They live in the Darby-Dixon neighborhood of Inglewood, California, and this crime-ridden suburban area nicknamed “the Bottoms” is not a very good place for them and other black teenagers in their neighborhood. While they are usually safe in their school, they may get themselves into any serious trouble on the streets outside even if they are careful.
While being a fan of the hip-hop culture of the 1990s (yes, that was a long time ago now), Malcolm is an outsider in his school, and so are his two friends, who are two other members of his punk rock band. Jib looks less dark compared to others because of his mixed racial combination (while the movie does not tell much about his family, he says he is 14% African at one point), and Diggy is a tomboy girl who is openly lesbian, which certainly does not make her look good in front of her family as well as others in the school.
Malcolm aspires to go to Harvard after his high school graduation, but, not so surprisingly, his chance is pretty low. His teacher skeptically points out to him that he will need far more than good grades and high SAT score for going to Harvard, but Malcolm gets an appointment for the interview with some prominent local businessman anyway, and that man might help Malcolm get his wish if Malcolm gives enough good impression during the interview.
And then he and his friends find themselves in a very tricky situation. Malcolm is asked by a local drug dealer named Dom (A$AP Rocky) to deliver his private message to Dom’s ex-girlfriend Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), and Nakia, who comes to like Malcolm during their first encounter, says she will go to a local nightclub as Dom wishes, if Malcolm also goes there. Excited by this fantastic chance, Malcolm takes Jib and Diggy to the nightclub, and they all have a pretty good time together while Malcolm gets an opportunity to become more intimate with Nakia.
When a shootout suddenly happens in the nightclub, Malcolm and his friends manage to get out of the place without getting hurt or arrested, but they discover on the next day that Dom hid a gun and a substantial amount of packaged Ecstasy in Malcolm’s backpack during the pandemonium at last night. Not long after this alarming discovery, they are called by someone through an iPhone which was also put into the backpack, and they soon get themselves involved with a number of local criminals.
The movie enters darker areas after Malcolm meets a drug lord who indirectly pushes him into a deal he cannot refuse. If Malcolm does his job well as demanded, he may get a ticket to Harvard, so he decides to take a risk for that. With a little help from a hacker guy they met before, Malcolm and his friends turn their school into the main operation site for their drug business, and nobody in the school suspects them mainly because of their meek status as geeks, though they almost get caught by the police during one funny scene.
While their clever tactics for selling drug are cheerfully depicted, it is a bit uncomfortable to watch their serious criminal activities which can surely send them to jail, and the screenplay by the director Rick Famuyiwa often loses its way between different moods clashing with each other. I like a tense but humorous scene between Malcolm and the drug lord (Roger Guenveur Smith is effective in his deadpan mix of subtle menace and no-nonsense attitude), but a silly scene involved with body fluids does not wholly work while it will make some of you wince for a good reason. Busily keeping doing one thing after another, the movie does not tidy up its plot well, and then it is hampered by a big monologue scene around the ending, which tries too hard to drive its messages into our heads. We already got the messages before that, and we also notice that the movie does not throw hard questions on Malcolm and his friends’ criminal activities, which will probably affect the rest of their life in one way or another no matter how much the last shot of the film looks hopeful.
Compared to Famuyiwa’s first film “The Wood” (1999), which was another coming-of-age tale set in Inglewood, “Dope” is less satisfying, but it is not entirely without fun. Its three young main performers are lively and engaging whenever they are together on the screen, and it is disappointing that the movie does not pay more attentions to Jib and Diggy, who are as underdeveloped as other many supporting characters in the film (Kimberly Elise is virtually wasted as Malcolm’s single mother, for instant). The movie is undeniably spirited in its heart, but I think it should have been more concentrated in its mind.