It’s Boyz n the Hood meets Revenge of the Nerds meets After Hours for three geeky teenagers navigating the mean streets of Inglewood, CA’s tough Bottoms neighborhood in Rick Famuyiwa’s delirious coming-of-age/drug dramedy Dope. A boy’s crush on a girl leads to all sorts of complications for the trio as they are challenged to prove that they are every bit as street-smart as they are book-smart.
Gangs and drugs are part of life in the Bottoms, but lifelong friends Malcolm (Shameik Moore), Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), and Jib (The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Tony Revolori) ignore that world as much as they can. They are a self-contained unit dedicated to all things ‘90s, particularly hip hop. They are college-bound kids and Malcolm is determined to get into Harvard. It is a dream firmly within his grasp until Malcolm’s crush on Nakia (Zoë Kravitz) leads him and his friends to step out of their comfort zone and attend drug dealer Dom’s (A$ap Rocky) birthday party. By the end of the evening, they are in possession of a backpack full of molly, squeezed by both Dom’s allies and rivals and petrified of being caught with the stuff by the cops.
How Malcolm and company deal with their problem is the stuff of much raucous humor and more than a little suspense. The genius of the film, though, is not in its plot, but in its sly observations. As geeks, Malcolm, Diggy, and Jib have run of the school, particularly the areas no one else bothers with in a distressed public school where few of their peers are on an academic track: the science lab, the computer room, even the band room. As geeks, they also have an air of innocuous respectability that gives them a measure of freedom.
Within the world Famuyiwa creates there is room for everything from debate over the “n” word to Malcolm’s pointed conclusions on the all-important college application personal essay. It’s funny stuff, but what pushes Dope over the top from goodness to greatness is the charm of its three young leads. –Pam Grady