When Dope finds its comic voice – pitched somewhere between the broad spoofery of Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood and the serious fatalism of Boyz N the Hood – the movie really sings. Unfortunately, this happens early, but then not often.
The movie focuses on a high schooler named Malcolm (Shameik Moore) whose fondness for ’90s hip hop, dedication to his grades and desire to go to college set him apart from most of the other African-American kids in his rough Inglewood neighborhood. Along with fellow outcasts Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori), Malcolm spends his days avoiding bullies and trying to stay out of trouble, a plan that falters when he makes the unlikely decision to attend a party for a drug dealer’s birthday.
Written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa, Dope has a scratch-and-pause feel, in which freeze frames, rewinds and at one point split screens echo the musical rhythms of the soundtrack. The movie opens with a burst of smart comic energy, suggesting it might be a worthy counterpart to 2014’s Dear White People, which also used humor to explore ideas of self-image and black identity. The movie spends much of its first half subverting stereotypes, whether it’s a scene of gangsters debating the ethics of drone warfare or a moment when Malcolm has an awkward conversation with a dealer because he’s unfamiliar with criminal slang. (Talk of “lunch” devolves into nonsense about baloney sandwiches.)
There’s a breeziness to such scenes that serves as catharsis; one way of dealing with difficult reality is to laugh about it. Yet as the plot kicks into gear (and there are a lot of gears), Dope’s voice begins to quaver. Seriousness invades, exposing the silliness of the story structure and the thinness of the characters (including that of Malcolm, despite Moore’s charismatic performance). The movie’s attempts to bring socially minded comedy back into the fold (especially a painful subplot involving a pothead hacker played by Blake Anderson) fall flat. By the time the movie ends, it does a complete U-turn, abandoning whatever levity it had for a preachy speech about cultural identity in the form of Malcolm’s college application essay. Dope may know what identities it wants to subvert, but it’s not quite sure what identity it wants to have.