Every once in a while, a movie and a moment converge in an uncanny collision of relevance. “Dope,” an exuberant coming-of-age comedy that beguiled audiences at Sundance earlier this year, engages the issues of race, identity and authenticity currently aswirl in the culture much in the way that Ryan Coogler’s 2013 Sundance hit “Fruitvale Station” eerily echoed the Trayvon Martin story that was dominating headlines when it came out.
Granted, “Dope” is much funnier than that sober-minded, fact-based drama, and by design. The story of a self-described geek trying to survive life while nursing an unabashed obsession with skateboards, Japanese manga, the band TV on the Radio and getting into Harvard, this giddy, observant picaresque tale hews more to lighthearted caper flicks and Ferris Bueller-type antics than grim observation of societal ills. And it doesn’t come by way of an audacious newbie, either. “Dope” was written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa, best known for the turn-of-the-millennium classics “The Wood” (1999) and “Brown Sugar” (2002).
Famuyiwa’s pedigree surely explains the healthy strain of nostalgia for the African American pop culture that flourished in the 1990s, from hip-hop and rom-coms to “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” But despite Famuyiwa’s status as a relative veteran, “Dope” brims with the energy and unbridled brio of someone discovering anew the unabashed pleasure of telling a story that, with meaning and purpose, hits perilously close to the bone.
Rocking a high-top fade worthy of early Will Smith, Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is a straight-A student at his high school in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood, where he rolls with his fellow ’90s-nerd friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), reminiscing about the heyday of “Yo! MTV Raps” and trying to avoid the Crips and Bloods who occasionally harass him for his sneakers. When Malcolm meets Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), the sometime girlfriend of a neighborhood tough played by rapper A$AP Rocky, Malcolm becomes infatuated. Seeking her out, he runs afoul of a gang of drug runners, sending him and his crew on a wacky trip to an underworld rife with drugs, guns and mobsters, a journey that will eventually lead them into the darkest nether regions of the digital black market known as the Dark Web.
As frightening and even fatal as that world is, “Dope” is permeated with a sense of resilience and philosophical good humor as Malcolm tries to reconcile his role as a studious Ivy League aspirant with his new, far shadier life. Moore delivers a shy, sweetly disarming performance as the conflicted Malcolm, receiving able support from Revolori and Clemons, who is a revelation as a young lesbian who must regularly attend church so her relatives can “pray away the gay.” The fact that Diggy joins in on the movie’s lusty male gaze doesn’t do much to soften the near-constant allusions to “hoes” and other harsher epithets for women. The film’s male wish fulfillment becomes particularly preposterous when a gorgeous millionaire’s daughter, played by Chanel Iman, throws herself at Malcolm in an MDMA-fueled swoon. Admittedly, that improbable sequence ends in a grossly amusing instance of comeuppance, and Quincy Brown, as her anxiously entitled brother, manages to steal every scene he’s in.
Brown’s character, who has grown up in privilege far from Inglewood’s Bottoms, where Malcolm and his friend are from, is perpetually questioning whether he’s “black enough,” a complicated question having to do with performance, self- presentation and interior narrative that runs through the heart of “Dope.” Such questions of identity aren’t limited to black characters. In a scene reminiscent of last year’s similarly themed “Dear White People,” a white hipster receives an amusingly on-point tutorial on the don’ts and don’ts of using the n-word.
Like its fellow Sundance hit “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” Famuyiwa’s movie is nominally about a pop culture-obsessed teenager navigating friendship and love while worrying about getting into college. But where the African American Earl of that film was reduced to a one-note caricature of “ethnic” comic relief, in “Dope” it’s as if he has been given the visibility, voice and complexity that was otherwise denied him. The climax of the movie is really its penultimate sequence, when Malcolm delivers a soaring soliloquy on perception, reality and the racial assumptions that reduce so many young African American men to toxic media tropes.
Famuyiwa reminds viewers not to believe — or worse, internalize — the hype, and he provides a great deal of cheeky, infectious fun in the process. Put another way, “Dope” is the bomb.
R. At area theaters. Contains profanity, drug content, sexuality, nudity and violence involving teens. 103 minutes.