This urban coming-of-age comedy won rave reviews at Sundance, and it's easy to see why. With "Dope," writer-director Rick Famuyima has created relatable characters who straddle seemingly contradictory stereotypes, forcing audiences to view the world beyond black and white. It's subversive, sharp and damn funny. What's not to like?
Shameik Moore leads a quirky and charismatic cast as high school senior Malcolm, a black geek -- meaning he enjoys "white things" like "manga comics, getting good grades … and Donald Glover." Growing up in crime-ridden Inglewood, California, with a single mom, Malcolm calls his struggle to get into a good college "a cliché." But this geek with a deep and unironic love of '90s hip hop refuses to be defined by stereotype. Which comes in handy once he's hit with another cliché for impoverished black youth.
When Malcolm accidentally ends up with a load of MDMA, he and his friends -- a lesbian tomboy named Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and a biracial goofball named Jib ("Grand Budapest Hotel"s Tony Revolori) -- have to find a way to sell the lot without getting caught or incurring the wrath of the dealers demanding a payday. Malcolm and his crew aren't hardened hoods, but rather well-meaning misfits with little street cred and wavering courage. Nonetheless, together, they MacGyver a mad plan that includes the school chemistry lab, a wealthy wild child (Chanel Iman) and a gawky hacker ("Workaholics" Blake Anderson).
Like Malcolm, "Dope" is a winsome collision of unexpected influences. Famuyima brings his signature warmth -- as seen in "The Wood" and "Brown Sugar" -- to "Dope," infusing even its minor characters with depth and humor. Its story has the loose feel of John Hughes' "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," while the design has the twee sensibilities of Wes Anderson. And its low point recalls the intensity of John Singleton's "Boyz 'N' The Hood," to breathtaking effect. All blend to make a coming-of-age movie that is at turns buoyant, provocative and bittersweet. But above all else, "Dope" is smart in its own right with a finely honed humor that strides into topics of drugs, race, sex and the magic of being a misfit.
It's easy to imagine this becoming a touchstone of teendom for a new generation, like "Clueless" and "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" have been. Like those, the characters of "Dope" are lovable, even when clueless.
Moore projects an earnestness and vulnerability that instantly urges the audience to empathize, no matter how different their background may be to Malcolm's. Revolori brings laughs and a youthful exuberance, and Clemon is smirks, sass and badass (flashing breasts and throwing fists when need be) as the group's short-tempered rebel. Together, they're a charm bomb as the punk band Awreeoh (pronounced Oreo). And like many a truly great teen flick, these underdogs are backed by a small army of supporting characters with their own memorable moments and silly signatures. Plus, there are quotable catchphrases ("Slippery slope!") and an enviable sense of style, sure to inspire -- in this case, a resurgence of loud print graphic button-downs and acid wash.
It was a joy to follow Malcolm on this journey through this unique yet universal high school experience of self-discovery. "Dope" dares to be different, and pays off big thanks, to a sensational cast, irreverent brand of humor, spirited tone and challenging purpose. Simply put, "Dope" lives up to its name in the best way possible.
"Dope" opens today nationwide.