Director: Rick Famuyiwa
Stars: Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori
3 (out of 5) Globes
“Dope” is a disarmingly fun-loving update on, of all things, the 1990s rash of grim hood movies, like “Boyz N Tha Hood,” “Juice” and “South Central,” but there’s only part where it actually goes too far. Our narrator (producer Forest Whitaker) tells a tragic story of a teen gunned down during a stick-up at a McDonald’s. The worst part, we’re informed, is he was about to beat his record on his GameBoy version of “Zelda.”
It’s really just that one time — the lone case where the disparity between gritty realism and silliness feels tone deaf and not, as is usually the case, sly and productive, offering satire and angry observations while (mostly) avoiding the preachy. At its heart “Dope” is a goofy lark involving the sometimes horrifically real: a wacky farce revolving around real conditions that haven’t improved in one of Los Angeles’ most poor and neglected areas; and real gripes about the state of race relations, both black-and-white and black-and-black. It’s not as sharp as the superficially similar “Dear White People,” but that’s because it trades some edge for populist thrills — but only some edge.
When “Dope” begins it’s not even clear what era it is. Its hero, Inglewood high schooler Malcolm (Shameik Moore), dresses like it’s 1991 and even sports a hi-top fade. Turns out it’s an affectation in the present day: He’s just a geek whose geekiness is largely reserved for ’90s hip hop and styles. He wants to get with an older local hottie (Zoe Kravitz, looking never more like Lisa Bonet, her mom). Instead he gets inadvertently involved in a drug fiasco involving a local dealer (A$AP Rocky) and quite a lot of MDMA. Malcolm’s life, and those of his equally dorky friends (Tony Revolori and Kiersey Clemons) and whoever else accidentally gets involved, are routinely in danger, but the tone stays resolutely upbeat and zany, even while acknowledging that this is, minus things like a public urination gag, all too real.
Indeed, “Dope” has a lot on its mind — a lot of grievances and satirical jabs it can’t resist throwing out there. It finds room for digs at white kids who want to co-opt black culture to the point that they throw hissy fits that they can’t drop the n-word. It mocks black trust fund kids who suck at hip hop and have nothing to do but seduce their way into drugs. It finds a funny, subtle way to show that the bullies of one generation grow up to be the security guards at high schools bullying the next wave of bullies. It even has a diss on Starbucks that’s almost as dated as the records Malcolm adores and which fuel the uncommonly euphonious soundtrack.
All along “Dope” sticks to its comedic tone, but the jokes have real force and real anger underneath them. When it comes time to get serious it doesn’t hold back on, among other things, penning people in to classifications, judging based on background and interests alone. “Dope,” at this point, threatens to get preachy; one character’s change is even underlined by that hoary cliche: getting a haircut. But it catches itself and gets back on track as a ride that’s equal parts righteously pissed and anxious fun — a film to debate but only after you’ve laughed your ass off.