Part of what makes writer-director Rick Famuyiwa's Dope so fresh and joyous is that in many key ways, it's not new at all. Here's a dramatic teen comedy, flavor-crystaled with sex and drugs and innocent raunch, about good friends who get caught up in bad business on their way to a climax that involves the dramatic recitation of a college-application essay. The soundtrack's a choice nostalgic mixtape, and the likable leads feel like stars on the rise, especially Shameik Moore: handsome yet half-formed, the kind of young actor who makes you feel as you watch that he's somehow your on-screen surrogate — that in these situations, you might feel and respond as he does. Like Dazed & Confused or The Breakfast Club, this is a film about just how weird the extraordinarily normal kids are — kids like you.
It's also set in the Bottoms of Inglewood. Instead of the usual teen-film anthropological rundown of which clique sits where at lunchtime, Dope taxonomizes black geekdom: The best-friend leads are into “white shit” like good grades and Donald Glover, and they all dress in something like '90s hip-hop cosplay. Famuyiwa is smart about the way cultural choice-making for young people is very much about the creation of selves. Through passionate curation, Malcolm (Moore) and his friends — lesbian Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and skinny Jib (Tony Revolori) — are auditioning who they might grow up to be, and by their senior year they've developed a confidence about their own isolated coolness. When Malcolm tells an adviser that he's going to Harvard, the adviser accuses him of arrogance, when it's exactly that self-regarding determination that might give Malcolm a chance.
But they also face more immediate concerns. What route home can you take when there are Bloods on one block and dealers looking to jack with you on the next? Life, Malcolm tells us, is “a daily navigation between bad and worse options.” But being a geek in Inglewood means inventing a choice where none existed previously. Wearing a high fade and sticking up for “Summertime” by the Fresh Prince? That's his way of signaling that he's charting his own course.
But he can't always. You can see Malcolm sifting through his bad and worse options when Dom (A$AP Rocky), a local druglord on the rise, asks him to deliver a flirty message to a young woman studying for her G.E.D. across the block (Zoë Kravitz). Malcolm knows this tough older kid might be setting him up for something awful — but he's out of options toward which he can navigate.
From that incident, Famuyiwa spins a complex, unpredictable, often suspenseful series of misadventures. Malcolm and his pals crash Dom's private club party, wind up chased by another on-the-make druglord, and take refuge with the offspring of a shady businessman, a rich-kid brother and sister given to tough-guy bravado and eager nudity. Malcolm is also prepping for his big interview with a Harvard alum who went to his high school, the head of a small payday loan empire. Meanwhile, Malcolm, Diggy and Jib also rehearse and record as a punk band called Oreo — and they even play a triumphant set at a drugged-out USC frat party. Their music, written by Pharrell Williams, is probably the one element too many in this busy, breezy picture. If the kids are that good, why aren't they taking music seriously? Eventually, Malcolm is left with only the worst of all options, and he has to offload a stash of molly. But the drug-selling here is more Risky Business entrepreneurism than Boyz n the Hood streetfight. Dope often feels like the rejuvenated Famuyiwa, who wrote and directed The Wood, is trying to cram it full of everything he's ever wanted to get into a movie. He chucks in Pop-Up Video effects and an explosion of .gif files, of-the-moment pop punk, and VHS tapes of Yo! MTV Raps. There are asides about band camp, Bitcoins and masturbation, and a glorious comic scene where a sympathetic white hippie pleads, sincerely, that A Tribe Called Quest's “Sucka Nigga” gives him license to use the one word white folks can't say. He intends it as a term of endearment, he insists. Malcolm and Jib shrug it off; Diggy smacks the shit out of him. (Her best '90s look: a bare midriff and boxers sticking up out of her pants, à la TLC.)
Again and again, Dope puts us in Malcolm's Air Jordans, letting us sweat or fear or hope right with him. The director and star understand that an everyman/everywoman quality is key to the best teen films, which trade in embarrassment and promise. Even if you've grown up, you should wince when the lead says something dumb to a crush, and you should cheer when an idealist sets right something wrong with this world that you've perhaps learned not to take so personally.
Dope is persuasive in its empathy, always tugging at universal feeling even as it situates us in its neighborhood's specifics. The Inglewood details — the drug dog at the entrance to the high school, the mostly empty room where Malcolm and friends take the S.A.T. — might, for many viewers, make Dope resonate more deeply than most teen films manage to. Teen movies have often taken place in vague, moneyed suburbs, built on the lie that there is one baseline American experience — that Jason Biggs humping a pie speaks for everyone while House Party is niche entertainment.
But every everyman has to come from somewhere, and the honest struggles faced by Malcolm and his friends are truer in spirit to those faced by most young Americans of any race than the movies usually get. This is a story about growing up, getting out, even as you discover that much of what you reject about the world you're raised in is already there inside you — and that you can bring all that to the next place, which will be better for it. Better still, Famuyiwa has laced these truths, and others, into an entertainment that, above all else, simply cooks along as a first-rate teen-comedy caper film. There's hope in Dope.