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, the kind of young actor who makes you feel as you watch that he's somehow your onscreen surrogate. 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. 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 Nineties hip-hop cosplay. Through passionate curation, Malcolm (Moore) and his friends -- lesbian Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and skinny Jib (Tony Revolori) -- are auditioning selves.
But they also face more immediate concerns. What route to take when there's 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 previously existed. Wearing a high fade and sticking up for "Summertime" by the Fresh Prince? He's signaling that he's charting his own course. Famuyiwa has laced truths into an entertainment that simply cooks along as a first-rate teen comedy caper film. There's hope in Dope.