How does a geek living in South Central Los Angeles get accepted into Harvard?
To Malcom (Shameik Moore), the answer still eludes him, even after writing his college application essay as a thoughtful, tongue-in-cheek analysis of Ice Cube’s good day. This high school senior doesn’t have it all figured out, but (un)luckily for him, one spontaneous, danger-filled adventure might help.
An adventure filled with guns, drugs, romance, and even vomit succinctly describes DOPE, a coming-of-age tale set in the hard-nosed streets of Inglewood, California. Produced by Forest Whitaker, Sean Combs, and Pharrell Williams, DOPE was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival, and has even already seen its first release in American theaters this past June. This second release in September feels rather appropriate, given it’s the start of the school year for many high school seniors who, like Malcom, are also anxious over college applications.
Of course, would-be college kids don’t need to go on a drug-laden, gang-infested path to self-discovery, but this is the road Malcom finds himself traveling. He and his friends Jib (Tony Revolori), a non sequitur-spewer of ambiguous racial origin, and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), a feisty lesbian, attend the birthday party of Dom (rapper A$ap Rocky), a local drug dealer. While Malcom hopes to win the heart of the lovely Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), he ends the evening by accidentally snagging a backpack full of molly. Forget alumni interviews and SAT test-taking; Malcom’s life is in danger just by having this bag.
There’s quite a bit of comedy to be had here, with Malcom – a 90’s-obsessed geek with a flat top, a Game Boy, and a collection of records from lesser-known rap groups – as the prime target of gangs and other ne’er-do-wells. In what could be a career-launching performance, Shameik Moore brings all of the awkward and quirky energy of a John Hughes character to Malcom, who proves a lovable hero in exceptional circumstances. DOPE also shines with its ensemble cast as well, as every scene with Malcom, Jib, and Diggy brings plenty of gags and punchlines.
When Dom phones Malcom from prison asking to deliver the backpack to an address, Malcom meets Lily (Chanel Iman) a lavish beauty and the daughter of a supposed drug lord. After getting a hold of Malcom’s drugs and throwing up all over him in a heated moment, Malcom rushes to his nearly-forgotten alumni interview. His interviewer (Roger Guenver Smith) – who turns out to be the drug lord in question – then tells Malcom he can earn admittance to Harvard if he can sell the drugs.
Not knowing the slightest about secure online transactions, the trio enlist the help of a white hippie-nerd Will Sherwood (Blake Anderson) to create a Bitcoin-based online store to sell the molly. If gang members coming after Malcom wasn’t bad enough, he’s now got the DEA to deal with as well. For a kid who just wants to go to Harvard, he’s wound up in the stickiest of situations.
In DOPE, drama, comedy, crime, and even romance blend together in one narrative, and the combination proves unique and memorable. The film’s relatively small gross earnings and limited releases obscure the fact that this is one of the summer’s most sincere and charming movies, having all of the appeal of a studio film. If not just a comedy, DOPE is a stereotype-smashing coming-of-age tale that uses Malcom’s extraordinary, treacherous adventures to reach a universal conclusion on the struggles of growing up, fulfilling expectations, and reaching goals. Pretty impressive for a geek.
Written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa.
Starring Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, and Kiersey Clemons.