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June 19, 2015

Yes, it’s yet another movie out of Sundance with a socially awkward teenage protagonist coming of age and documenting his experience in a college application essay. Just one thing: this time the kid in question is black, lives in Ingleside, and his troubles are a bit bigger than whether the quirky girl likes him or not.

The movie is Dope, which does double-duty as both title and description. The boy is Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a ’90s obsessed geek living on a modern-day neighborhood called “The Bottoms”, which is as promising as it sounds. He and his friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori) have a ska-punk band called Awreeoh (with songs by co-producer Pharrell Williams), and Malcolm wants to take his straight-As off to Harvard, which his principal (Bruce Beatty) helpfully tells him is never going to happen.

Then one day some gang member bullies try to steal his kicks and get one, so that afternoon he can’t pedal his bike fast enough to avoid the crew selling meth for Dom (A$AP Rocky), so Dom uses Malcolm as a messenger to Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), who just happens to be the girl around the hood Malcolm is crushing on. Dom wants Nakia to come to his birthday at a club, and Nakia tells Malcolm she’ll show up if he does, which puts Malcolm, Diggy, and Jib at the club when shit goes down.

Luckily they make it out unscathed, but in the chaos Dom slipped a gun and a whole lot of uncut meth into Malcolm’s backpack, which he discovers when getting through security at school the next morning. Of course, the guard knows Malcolm’s a straight-A geek, so clearly the metal detector and drug dog are both on the fritz and Malcolm gets waved through anyway. But someone knows what’s up, and now Malcom and his friends are on the hook to push the product themselves or face the consequences.

The core of Dope may be a tale as old as Sundance itself, but writer/director Rick Famuyiwa works wonders breathing new life into it. The characters are fresh and vital, and far from the usual cast for this kind of story. The script is hilarious and hip to everything from Bitcoin to Black Twitter, and even finds time for its own little riff on teaching Malcolm’s white drug dealing friend (a very game Blake Anderson) why some people can and can’t use certain words.

In transplanting the teen coming-of-age comedy to Crenshaw, Famuyiwa reveals that it’s not inherently a boring, played-out trope; it’s just boring and played-out in its usual lazy execution. And on the flip side, there are tons of characters and situations that the usual products of mainstream Black cinema just don’t touch. This is why cross-pollinating genres and filmmakers is so important, and especially why it’s important to create spaces for all different kinds of writers and directors who can tell even old stories in new and interesting ways. The powers that be may fear the slippery slope, but take it from me: this movie is Dope.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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