There’s a good reason Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope has hit Sundance like a neutron bomb. Amid the worthy coming-of-age stories and quirky romances and moody ennui, there was no way an infectiously entertaining, twisty-turny punk-comedy-thriller wasn’t going to stand out. But that it somehow manages to be all that while also offering a savvy look at race and achievement in our hyperconnected age? Boom. Dope is Go meets Risky Business meets True Romance meets Fingers, with a little bit of Boyz N the Hood and We Are the Best! thrown in. I don’t know if all of those movies were actually on Famuyiwa’s mind — I highly doubt it — but the film wears its referentiality on its sleeve, turns it into a thing, toys with it, and uses it to toy with us.
Our hero, Malcolm Adekanbi (Shameik Moore, pure dorky charisma), raised by a single mother in the Los Angeles projects known as the Bottoms, is, as he tells us himself, a “geek.” His favorite show is Game of Thrones, he has his own punk band called Awreo (with his best friends Jib and Diggy, played by Tony Revolori and Kiersey Clemons), he’s applying to Harvard, and he’s obsessed with '90s hip-hop. His world is a mess of references both retro (2 Live Crew, N.W.A., Yo! MTV Raps) and modern (Bitcoin, Twitter, etc.). His attempt to carve out a personal style, to be himself, doesn’t sit well with anybody — not the drug dealers infesting his hood, not the jocks who pick on him at school, not even his teachers, one of whom looks down at Malcolm’s essay proposal, “A Research Thesis to Discover Ice Cube’s Good Day.” (Malcolm is undeterred: “If Neil deGrasse Tyson was writing about Ice Cube, this is what it’d look like!” he protests.)
Malcolm’s unfortunate series of events kick in when he runs into a drug dealer, Dom (A$AP Rocky), who seems a bit smarter than most folks around him; he bests Malcolm at classic rap trivia, for starters. That puts Malcolm in contact with the beautiful Nakia (Zoe Kravitz), whom Dom also covets but who has more in common with our college-bound hero than she does with her ostensible drug-dealer suitor. Their attraction lands Malcolm at a club party, which then dissolves into gunfire, which in turn results in his getting stuck with a book bag full of the drug Molly. Long story short (there are many, many more twists and turns along the way), Malcolm and his nerd pals find themselves reluctantly forced into selling the drugs. (“We’re talking about Molly,” one of them offers. “All we gotta do is find the white people. Go to Coachella.”) But what about that Harvard application, not to mention the SATs? And the band? And the iPad-app-enabled drug dealers chasing them? And what will Nakia think?
Dope isn’t perfect — it’s got a couple too many endings, and it loses the romantic subplot for a distressingly long time. But it moves with amazing energy, the dialogue and soundtrack and imagery a constant stream of pop-culture references, in-jokes, and digressions. Along the way, the film tackles everything from celebrity in the age of social media, to how Amazon’s business model relates to the narcotics trade, to who can use the N-word and who can’t, to the double standards that govern academic achievement, to the meaning of authenticity in a world governed by pre-fab expectation. That Famuyiwa and his cast can keep so many of these balls in the air without everything collapsing into an inchoate mess is remarkable.
The film even finds the time to settle down and offer up occasional passages of genuine, heartfelt beauty. At one point, Malcolm boards a bus driven by his mother and dreams of the film’s various characters — friends and nemeses alike — quietly getting on at each stop and gently bopping their heads to Gil Scott-Heron’s “Home Is Where the Hatred Is.” If Federico Fellini had directed Superfly, he might have come up with a scene like this. God damn, I loved this film.