Fresh from a successful bow at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope (2015) hit the Director’s Fortnight sidebar at Cannes to resounding praise from the critical circuit. It’s a hip–hop remix of the kind of high school comedy that John Hughes cut his teeth on in the Eighties; a Ferris Beuller’s Day Off in Inglewood, if you will. Three friends – our hero Malcolm (Shameik Moore), Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori, last seen as the bell hop in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel) – have all the usual problems of young kids at school: fitting in with their peers, being bullied and struggling to keep their grades up.
The former is made more difficult by the fact that they obstinately get into ‘white shit’: Game of Thrones, skateboarding, getting into an Ivy League college, comic books and playing in their own punk band. This doesn’t endear them to their schoolmates and they are routinely bullied. Once out of school, the friends have to navigate their way home through drug dealers, rival gangs and the ever present danger of gun violence. Refusing to fit into any stereotype, Malcolm connects to black culture via the music from the nineties. However, he is soon drawn out of the (relative) safety of his small sphere by gang member and drug dealer Dom (A$AP Rocky) who uses him as an intermediary with local girl, Nakia (Zoë Kravitz). The inevitable happens as Malcolm falls for the girl, but when the friends go to a party in pursuance of the budding romance a dispute over a drug deal interrupts the fun and leaves our heroes in possession of a large bag of MDA and a gun.
Essentially a caper movie, Dope defies the wearisome social realism that is often used to depict lives at the bottom of the social ladder. The script is verbally smart and the various contrivances and tangles of the plot are amusingly played out. At times, there is a little too much going on, as Famuyiwa throws everything he has at the screen, with YouTube clips, a Judd Apatow party scene, a lot of voiceover and flashbacks. But the madcap speed gives the film enough momentum, and the sheer likeability of the three main characters supplies the heart, to see it through. In fact, it is friendship, not love, that is the most important relationship here; Nakia is woefully underwritten and disappears for a long section of the film. Of the girls only Diggy – a girl who digs girls – gets anything approaching a character. She and Jib stick close to Malcolm despite the dangers and, with the help of white slacktivist and hippy Will (a scene stealing turn from Blake Anderson), set up an internet business to sell their haul of drugs, using videos of their punk bands ‘The Oreos’ to publicise it.
There are holes in the plot you could drive a DeLorean through and the film feels unwilling to leave without tying up every single loose end, but essentially Dope is likeable fun, a youth comedy which has more in common with Risky Business and Superbad than She’s Gotta Have It or House Party. There are some sharply made satirical points – the gangs making their YouTube videos, the community leader is revealed to be a hypocrite – but the film never becomes preachy and if one moment teeters on the edge of worthiness, it manages to pull itself out and adroitly get on with other business. As well as launching Shameik Moore and the rest of the young cast, Dope is significant for its invigorating approach to the underprivileged urban youth it represents. There’s realism, optimism and – as with the best 80s movies – even a prom.