Briefly described, the plot of “Dope” almost sounds like parody: social-drama uplift crossed with gangsta exploitation. Malcolm, a bright, likable high senior (Shameik Moore), wants to go to Harvard once he graduates from his ghetto high school. It’s in Inglewood, next to Los Angeles. Malcolm has a pair of equally bright, likable pals, Jib and Diggy (Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons). So far, so uplifting — and unpromising. Then they get caught up in a failed drug deal. The question now isn’t whether Malcolm gets into Harvard. It’s whether he, Jib, and Diggy get killed. So far, so exploitative — and equally unpromising.
Except that writer-director Rick Famuyiwa turns right angles into curves, and curves into corkscrews. “Dope” begins with three dictionary definitions of its title — as a term for drugs, a term for someone unintelligent, and a term of praise. The definitions aren’t just a vocabulary lesson. They’re a warning — or wink — since all three meanings apply to the movie, which busts up genres even as it braids together that trio of meanings.
The busted genres start with comedy. When was the last time you saw a movie that got a laugh by putting Neil deGrasse Tyson and Ice Cube in the same sentence? Other genres include teen movie (obviously), caper movie (hey, who ends up with the drugs?), social satire (don’t expect the Harvard Alumni Association to sponsor any “Dope” screenings), hip-hop movie (Pharrell Williams is executive producer, and Sean Combs co-executive producer), even documentary (Forest Whitaker, one of the producers, does some voice-over work). Since former Celtic and Laker Rick Fox briefly shows up as a city councilor touring Malcolm’s high school, maybe “Dope” qualifies as a basketball movie, too.
Oh, it’s also a romance. Malcolm finds himself at the site of the drug deal because he’s infatuated with Nakia (Zoë Kravitz). When he offers to help Nakia study for her GEDs, he wants to be suitor as well as tutor.
Wait, there’s one more genre: “Dope” is a stoner movie. It’d be hard not to, with a title like that. In a highly implausible subplot, albeit one that’s extremely useful for making those curves, angles, and corkscrews cohere, Malcolm has a blissed-out, computer-whiz buddy (Blake Anderson) he met one summer at music camp. Malcolm was there since he, Jib, and Diggy have a trio called, ahem, Oreo.
As that name suggests, Famuyiwa doesn’t exactly observe the social niceties. If the N-word were rain, it wouldn’t take many screenings of “Dope” to end the California drought. Full of energy and attitude, it’s the sort of movie that likes to startle, if not necessarily shock. No wonder “Dope” was an audience favorite at Sundance last winter.
Yet might there be something about waiting in line in the Utah cold that masks calculation and thinness and makes playing with racial stereotypes to little purpose seem daring?
“Dope” is too smart and lively to be dismissed. It’s even original in its mixing of ingredients, however unoriginal those ingredients may be. But it’s also unfeeling and, beneath its in-the-hood surface, as much a bit of artifice as a Wes Anderson movie. That’s not as crazy a comparison as it might sound. Since Revolori’s Jib wears a turned-around baseball cap, moviegoers may not realize until the end credits that, yes, he’s the same guy who plays the young Zero in “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” The comparison is, though, as unflattering as it sounds.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.