Malcolm (Shameik Moore, in a fantastic feature debut) and his pals Jib (Tony Revolori: The 5th Wave) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) are serious geeks, are into 90s hiphop (and have their own band), and just looking to make it through senior year and get into a decent college; Malcolm is dreaming of Harvard. But they live in a rough Los Angeles neighborhood where the threat of getting beat up by the jocks at school is nothing compared to the inner-city obstacle course they face every day, the one populated by gangbangers and drug dealers. In the course of crashing a party so that Malcolm can, he hopes, impress pretty Nakia (Zoë Kravitz: The Divergent Series: Allegiant), the three pals get caught up in an unlikely criminal escapade that is way outside their comfort zone, yet also one that plenty of outsiders would suppose is wholly emblematic of their lives, given the color of their skin and where they live.
Writer and director Rick Famuyiwa — who made the wonderful Brown Sugar (so many years ago now) and the much less wonderful Our Family Wedding more recently — tells a smart, engaging, and ultimately bigotry-busting story about a young man who brilliantly defies the categories he already knows he is easily slotted into, and does so with unflaggingly cheerful optimism. The movie has a few problems: I suspect there are fewer hot slightly older women walking around naked and ready to screw a high-school kid five minutes after they meet than the movie proposes. And the running gags about Diggy’s lesbianism aren’t as clever or as progressive as the movie would like; how she shores up the film’s extreme male-gaziness is, in fact, the opposite of progressive. But the hugely appealing young cast and the nonstop liveliness elevate Dope far above the typical entry in the several genres it plays with. Like its hero himself, this is nothing you might expect.