High school is tough, with Senior Year being the most brutal of them all. With choices to be made, friends to be kept (or lost), and Prom looming in the distance, a lot can cloud a teenager's mind. It's the stuff that all of the classic teen movies are made of, and Dope not only knows this, it knows it well. Director Rick Famuyiwa shows that not only does he understand the youth of today, but he also knows how to show a love for nostalgia without going into overkill territory.
Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is working extremely hard on getting into Harvard and making a name for himself. With his two best friends, Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori), his days are filled with 90's nostalgia, music making, and commentary on the awkwardness of high school social life. That all changes after a chain of events lead to a slippery slope that has Malcolm and company inadvertently being drafted into a drug war that has them pushing product. And as if that wasn't bad enough, he has a crush on a local beauty (Zoe Kravitz) that also has the eye of a player in said drug war. Somehow, getting into Harvard is no longer the hardest goal on Malcolm's to-do list.
Dope almost acts as a spiritual prequel to writer/director Famuyiwa's 1999 cult classic The Wood, as this film trades nostalgia of one's past for the nostalgia of past culture. By invoking said nostalgia, Rick Famuyiwa harkens back to films like Do The Right Thing, in which racial tensions are explored expertly through what would normally pass itself off as a typical piece of entertainment. The film definitely pays off in the entertainment department, but what really drives it all home is how deftly the racial politics of the film are woven within said entertainment. By time Malcolm's closing arguments are made, they are a powerful punctuation to the film's statement.
While Dope is ultimately a rewarding viewing experience, it is undercut by a couple of choices that wind up standing out as loose threads in the fabric of the film. One such ingredient is random narration by Academy Award winner and producer on the film, Forest Whitaker. While his narration is played for humor, and works at that aim admirably, it pretty much disappears at a certain point in the film. The same goes for the character of Dom (Rakim Mayers), who starts off the film as the main protagonist, but ultimately winds up going away without even the satisfaction of a resolution. It's thematic dead ends like these that stop Dope from completely sticking the landing, but thankfully they don't ruin the really powerful and tightly woven content that exists otherwise.
With a script that wears its wistfully reflective heart on its sleeve, and performances by a main trio that engage every frame of the film they occupy, Dope is one of those gems buried in the summer box office. Genuine heart and laughter fills this film, which not only gives the audience something fun to laugh at but gives them something to talk about. If you’re looking for a coming of age story that takes a familiar premise and manages to do something important with it, then look no further.