Dope is a mess of styles and mixed signals, a pulp fiction that tends more to its loyalties to other cine-odysseys through the streets of Los Angeles than it does to parsing its main characters’ self-consciously styled identities. The film establishes the chic nerdism of Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his goofy best friends, Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori), only as a throwback—specifically to ’90s hip-hop culture. It rewards the audience’s nostalgia for the pop-cultural detritus of that prehistoric era before memes and Bitcoin—a joke about a kid being shot and killed just seconds before “beating Ganon” exists only to flatter Game Boy enthusiasts of yore—without ever understanding the trio’s public show of affection as a response to what our culture expects from people of color. The catchy electro whitewash that their garage band strums (the film’s music is by executive producer Pharrell Williams) doesn’t exactly corroborate their allegiance to the grungy days of Yo! MTV Raps, but then, it’s at least consistent with the film’s message that “you shouldn’t settle for what’s expected.”
The film’s hectic narrative kicks into breezy motion when Malcolm the school genius attempts to broker a hookup between a dealer (A$AP Rocky) and an around the way girl (Zoë Kravitz) who conveniently struggles with her math equations. A shooting at a local club ends with Malcolm running for cover with, oblivious to him, a handgun and bricks of molly stashed in his backpack, and after a run-in with a rival dealer trying to intercept the booty, Malcolm, Diggy, and Jib hatch a plan to sell the drugs online using untraceable Bitcoin as currency. Their smarts, as in Malcolm’s canny ditching of his iPhone on the bus his mother (Kimberly Elise) operates, become the thrust of the ever-curlicuing narrative. Dope is an Inglewood-set version of Go that seems to pause only when it feels the audience might need a breather, as in a standoff that’s winkingly punctuated with a bike stroll scored to Nas’s “The World Is Yours” and a dreamy bus ride featuring all of Malcolm’s tormentors staring him in the face.
Dope is a drug caper, heist film, and coming-of-age saga wrapped into one, and it feels noticeably constrained by a familiar and forced holding pattern. It’s abundant in gags and conversations that, while often smart, our pop culture has already proffered. (The film’s funniest bit, in which Jib wishes there was an app that could help him and his friends avoid “these hood traps,” soars because it articulates a feeling that’s profoundly and uniquely bittersweet.) Malcolm, Diggy, and Jib’s reunion with a hacker, Will (Blake Anderson), they met at band camp suggests, in the cock-nitive brio of Anderson’s performance, outtakes from an episode of Workaholics. One especially jokey stretch, featuring Chanel Iman as a drug overload’s oft-naked daughter and Malcolm’s would-be cherry popper, begins as a distracting allusion to the firecracker scene from Boogie Nights before culminating in a trite digression about memes that, as if in kinship to the opening of the ever-churlish Tina Fey’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, delights in transforming poverty and blackness into a punchline.
Writer-director Rick Famuyiwa, to be fair, understands Malcolm’s nostalgia as a shield against the very chaos that the bricks of drugs in his backpack force on him. But aside from a poignant encounter between Malcolm and a sneaker-stealing bully, in which the former shakily points a gun at the latter and both are reborn to notions of cause and effect, the film mostly articulates Malcolm’s struggle to stay true to his meticulously curated sense of self in bits of crudely imparted wisdom. For our convenience, since Malcolm is smart enough to know this already, it’s pointed out that he made the “choice to make the delivery,” which, of course, leads him down a very “slippery slope.” More dubious is Dope’s betrayal of the kid’s intelligence, misguidedly buying into the lie of the high school principal who scoffs at Malcolm’s planned college essay on Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day.” In the end, Famuyiwa tragically suggests, and in contradiction to the twee lip service the film’s coda pays to identity, that Malcolm must at least taste menace before his geekiest ambitions can be legitimized.