In many ways, Dope is a standard coming-of-age American indie, right down to the buzzy Sundance premiere and self-consciously precious stylization. What saves it from growing insufferable is its energy and perspective. Writer-director Rick Famuyiwa (The Wood, Brown Sugar) gives the proceedings a loping eccentricity informing each meandering step through a fraught Inglewood odyssey. It stars a good kid in a bad neighborhood, who is pulled away from his path to Harvard through a series of accidents and coincidences, then must work his way back. Complications pile up, and a variety of subplots and supporting characters push each other off screen for puzzling periods of downtime. It’s a movie with too much, finding time in its loose plot for narration on everything from racial authenticity to gay rights, drug dealers debating the morality of drones, and Pharrell-penned musical interludes. It’s too much, but when it settles into an easy groove, it’s a pleasure.
Set in modern day Los Angeles County, high-schooler Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his buddies (Kiersey Clemons and Tony Revolori) look like they stepped out of Yo! MTV Raps in the early 90’s. Self-described black geeks, they love old school hip-hop, playing in a garage band they started after dropping out of marching band, and shopping for vintage gear. The opening narration (delivered smoothly by Forest Whitaker) tells us they aren’t in a gang and don’t do drugs, spending their days dodging dangerous characters while working towards good SAT scores, a fun prom, and going to college. But, with their adolescent urges, they’re always looking for ladies. When a nice girl from the block (Zoë Kravitz) invites them to a birthday party down at the club, they can’t help themselves, even though the guest of honor is a notorious local dope dealer (A$ap Rocky).
Their plans for the future are thrown into doubt when the police break up the party and the dealer stashes his dope in Malcolm’s bag. Our leads escape, but soon those dangerous characters draw near as the trio scrambles to stay alive and get rid of the drugs in a way that’ll get them out of trouble with both cops and criminals. They’re caught between a dealer and a law place. For a while it’s a madcap scramble to get the bag back to its owner, a goal complicated by a rival dealer (Amin Joseph), a slimy businessmen (Roger Guenveur Smith), a high rich girl (Chanel Iman) and her aspiring producer brother (Quincy Brown), and Malcolm’s mom (Kimberly Elise). A tight focus on this crisis, in a one-crazy-After Hours-day mode, rockets the movie along, but soon drifts away as the film swells with misjudged comedy and overcrowded subplots – romantic, academic, criminal, and more – which drain the threat of immediacy.
A sort of slow-motion caper movie, with a supporting cast too sporadically deployed and stereotypically defined to really pop, the key source of interest is Malcolm. Rachel Morrison's smooth cinematography keeps him the center of attention as Moore delivers a loose, funny, charismatic performance. It’s easy to root for the meek geek in over his head in situations out of his control, and Famuyiwa finds workable tonal slipperiness by allowing the central character such fine consistency. Through a gauntlet of disreputable scenarios by turns comic, suspenseful, and sexy, we watch this young man attempt to wrest back agency in his own life and prevent damaging his Ivy League dreams. The way there takes too many detours, but Moore’s allowed to be the sort of performer who immediately draws attention and sympathy whenever he’s on screen. His climactic recitation of his college application essay, looking straight out at the audience before pulling up his hoodie and walking away, is such a powerful moment of rhetoric. It’s almost excusable how uninvolving the film’s back stretch – involving a dumb hacker (Blake Anderson), and some far-fetched contrivances – grows, plus the few extra endings beyond that point.
The telling may be shaggy, but there’s still some appeal in the framing. Matching the main trio’s throwback vibe, Famuyiwa’s direction is similarly inspired by early-90’s culture, specifically the particular indie sensibility birthed by the early successes of Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, John Singleton, and Kevin Smith. There was a period of a few years where all you needed to launch a tiny film project was semi-comic violence, ironic distance, loud politics, dialogue saturated with pop culture patter, and liberal use of split-screens, title cards, arch narration, and malleable chronology. Few of the derivative works were as good as their inspirations, and even some of them weren’t that good. But somehow, twenty years on, there’s some freshness in seeing the old tropes again, especially when brought to a slick hipster synthesis speaking to uniquely modern discourse on race and opportunity (and technology, though dropping the word “bitcoin” a hundred times doesn’t make it as successful a topic here). There’s personality to spare, enough to almost cover up its sloppier parts.