Dope Is A Smart, Funny Look At The Lives of Young, Modern-Day Nerds of Color.

Dope.
Director: Rick Famuyiwa.
Writer: Rick Famuyiwa.
Actors: Shameik Moore, Tony Revolorio, Kiersey Clemons, Zoe Kravitz and A$AP Rocky.
Opens at: Wide.

There's no doubting that these are trying racial times in America.

Just this morning, a 21-year-old white man was taken into custody on suspicion of shooting up an historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, on Wednesday night, leaving nine dead. This tragedy, meanwhile, comes right on the heels of the media circus surrounding the deranged Rachel Dolezal, the head of the local NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington, who, despite being born Caucasian, has created a stir for self-identifying as African-American. And that to-do follows in the immediate wake of the underlying racial tensions involved in the McKinney pool party craziness, a situation emblematic of the greater racial strife gripping our nation as a whole these days.

No, race is not a situation meant to be taken lightly in American these days — and yet, on some levels, that's exactly what Dope attempts to do as it tells the story of three nerdy teens of color who are thrust into a precarious situation involving misplaced drugs.

Interesting timing.

On some levels, Dope is an argument for post-racial America: Our heroes — Malcolm (Shameik Moore), Jib (Tony Revolorio) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) — don't fit squarely into any real stereotypes. They play in a punk band, are obsessed with '90s hip-hop culture to the point of even trying to look the part, and they're also way into “white kid shit” like Game of Thrones, skateboarding and Donald Glover. They're proud to be different, even if that means they're frequently picked on and berated as geeks by their classmates. But there are perks, too, to their roles: The school security guards never checks their bags and, at least for Malcolm, his studious outlook has earned him strong enough grades to the point where getting into Harvard is a real possibility for his future.

Of course, that all becomes secondary once the plot is set in motion and Malcolm befriends a local drug dealer named Dom (A$AP Rocky) who invites Malcolm to his upcoming birthday bash. It's not exactly Malcolm's scene, no, but his crush on Dom's sort-of girlfriend Nakia (Zoe Kravitz) and the chance to dance with her wins out over his more rational thoughts. Naturally, that's where things go wrong for our lead: There's a shoot-out at the party and, in the confusion, Malcolm ends up walking away with a huge stash of drugs and a gun in his backpack. Suddenly, Malcolm and his pals are faced with ditching the stash, a task that leads them through a number of crazy situations and run-ins with various eccentric characters along the way.

In many ways, Dope is a fish-out-of-water tale. The trio at the center of this story isn't quite built for this struggle — not individually, at least. They're all annoying, slightly pretentious types. They talk a lot of shit and not always properly — Malcolm, for instance, at one point mistakenly calls The Blueprint a '90s album — but the way they vibe and joke around with one another makes them incredibly likable. It also makes them better people: Once all the drama starts going down, it's the strength of their friendship that holds these individuals together.

The young cast sells this all quite well, too. As Malcolm, Moore is a revelation. His is one of the best performances we're likely to see all year: His body language and facial expressions say so much about his personality as his character finds himself in increasingly uncomfortable situations. He's also charming as hell, genuinely funny and looks cool when playing guitar, which is always a plus.

Dope isn't quite a perfect film. There are some slight tonal issues throughout its run. The violence and nudity that pops up throughout don't quite fit with the mostly light-hearted and comedic tone of the rest of the movie, which bites off perhaps more than it can chew by attempting to be goofy and serious all at once. This isn't to say that these two things can't go together, just that this movie doesn't provide a seamless transition between its two poles.

That said, it's a smartly written movie. It may be set in a dangerous neighborhood, but Dope largely revels in different stakes. Death isn't what looms above our characters' heads. Rather, the concern is how their ambitions might become derailed should they get caught with the drugs in their possession. That doesn't mean it's any less tension-filled, though, because it certainly is, and compellingly so.

Perhaps most compelling, though, is the unique perspective this film brings to the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't racial world we live in. It certainly spoke to me. As an immigrant myself, I spent a large portion of my childhood straddling the line between the respective cultures of my native country and my new home. And as a nerdy young Mexican who too was drawn to “white kid shit,” I never really fit in much as a teen. I was cool enough for the Latino kids in my school, and I didn't quite mesh with the white kids, either. The transparency and honesty with which Dope approaches this situation makes for a breath of fresh air — one that should resonate well with a large subsection of American kids from across the racial spectrum.

Towards the end of the movie, one of the film's characters addresses this head on, offering up a monologue that reminded me a little bit of Charlie Chaplin's famous end-speech in The Great Dictator. This one might not be of the same caliber, and it perhaps spells out the themes of the movies a little too literally, but it's a powerful statement just the same — one that garnered the applause of the entire audience at my screening.

Dope is hardly the answer to our nation's woes. But it is a charming, well-written reminder that life's differences are worthy of celebration.

Grade: B.

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