If you’ve seen the ads for Dope, it’d be forgivable if you mistakenly assumed the film was set in the early 90s. Very much conscious of its use of that visual palette, Dope is smart to declare itself set in 2015 from the get go, opening the film with the protagonist Malcolm explaining to his mother how Bitcoins work. For every 90s-soaked skateboard, flat top hairdo, and A Tribe Called Quest music cue, Dope also features references to memes, smart phones, and online black markets, presumably so you don’t lose track of exactly when the film is set. The reason for all the 90s cultural markers is fairly straight-forward: it’s been long enough that the era has been deemed vintage cool, at least by the three high school geek main characters. Of course, since they were but young pups during the 90s, their understanding of the era is flimsy at best, as hilariously skewered by A$AP Rocky (making his acting debut here) within the film in his role as Dom, a drug dealer who sets the plot’s wheels in motion, in one of the movie’s more amusing & self-aware exchanges.
Dope is the coming-of-age story of three high school geeks who are used to pursuing good grades unexpectedly getting suckered into selling drugs. Set in a neighborhood called “The Bottoms”, a particularly rough area of Inglewood, CA, the protagonists are basically just trying to survive. Of course, because they are teenagers, they’re also trying to look cool & get laid, which complicates the task at hand at nearly every turn. Dope has a lot to say about racial identity, social inequality, and teen sexuality, but at its heart it’s really just a sweet story about three awkward high school students finding themselves having to grow up very quickly (due to a misplaced hand gun & an enormous bag of drugs). The movie doesn’t get everything right in the details (the trio’s “punk band” plays songs hilariously over-produced by Pharrell), but it’s mostly on point in capturing a very specific cultural subset that’s never received the big screen treatment before.
Watching Dope, I was reminded of my experience with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, except with the manga & video game references swapped out for 90s hip-hop. I enjoyed the film, but like with Scott Pilgrim. I’m certain that a very specific target audience of younger folks are going to latch onto it much, much more enthusiastically than I ever could. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is going to be someone out there’s favorite film, if nothing else because they’ve never seen themselves represented on the screen before. Where I see a fairly funny, vibrantly shot high school movie with wonderfully eccentric moments & a killer soundtrack (the Pharrell songs excluded), I expect someone else will see The Greatest Movie of All Times Forever. Even if that’s all the movie accomplishes, that’s still pretty dope.