This love letter to all things 90s sees geeky African American teen Malcolm (played by Shameik Moore) embark on a journey of self-discovery in a working-class Los Angeles suburb. Malcolm's world revolves around maintaining his near-perfect grade score, listening to 90s rap music and dressing like he comes from another era (one kid even calls him "Back To The Future"). Oh, and wacking off to YouTube footage of women twerking. Yes, it's that kind of film.
The trouble starts when Malcolm goes to his first senior party with his two friends Jib (played by Grand Budapest Hotel actor Tony Revolori) and lesbian Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and accidentally comes into possession of a bag full of a new party drug. "Let's just take it to the police," says Jib. "Yeah, three black kids walk into a police station with a gun and a bag of drugs..." Malcolm retorts. Can Malcolm get rid of the drugs and stay alive - and ace his Harvard application?
Director Rick Famuyiwa wears his influences very heavily on his sleeve. The Breakfast Club even receives a namecheck here (Malcolm's final speech will remind viewers of the closing soliloquy given by Brian "The Brain" in John Hughes' classic movie). And there is more than a passing nod to Spike Lee's films Do The Right Thing and School Daze.
Dope is extremely well cast and there are some surprising appearances by the likes of Kimberly Elise (of For Coloured Girls Who Have Considered Suicide fame), who plays Malcolm's mother, Zoe Kravitz as Nakia, Malcolm's lust object, and Roger Guenveur Smith - who, incidentally starred in Lee's Do The Right Thing. Newcomer Shameik Moore makes a charming and charismatic protagonist - indeed it's hard to believe this is his first lead role.
There are some sharp lines and laugh-out-loud moments in Dope which I won't spoil by revealing what they are. However, Famuyiwa tries to please two masters - the indie movie crowd and the frat boy circuit - and ends up missing the mark. The film is overlong and could have done without the casual misogyny (Clemons' character seems to exist purely so we can see some girl-on-girl action).
Any film with a protagonist of colour with a story that isn't predicated on tragedy is welcome. However, while highly enjoyable, Dope ends up looking like a cynical, multiplex-pleasing exercise and I came away wondering just who this film was for. Like the "love and hate" speech delivered by Radio Raheem in Lee's Do The Right Thing, there's a scene in Dope where a criminal asks Malcolm if he can tell the difference between a real crocodile bag and a fake one. "Are you real or are you fake?" he demands. We may well ask the same of Famuyiwa.
Oh, and don't leave before the credits start - or you'll miss Moore doing cheesy 90s moves in various LA locales.