Review: Entertaining ‘Dope’ asks if you’re a geek or a menace or both

PARK CITY – The 2015 edition of the Sundance Film Festival has already brought us star-making performances from Bel Powley (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”) and Thomas Mann (“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”). But it turns out they are not alone. It appears we have a triumvirate of breakout talent in coming-of-age flicks with the addition of “Dope's” Shameik Moore. The Atlanta native is freakin' fantastic as an Inglewood high school senior trying to stay true to himself in Rick Famuyiwa's entertaining new dramedy.

Famuyiwa, who is best known for 1999's underrated drama “The Wood,” has fashioned a crowd-pleaser in “Dope,” a movie that brings a '90s hip-hop aesthetic to a contemporary story. The director's muse is Malcolm (Moore), a self described African-American geek who is in love with the aforementioned era (almost everything was better then). He spends most of his time hanging out with his best friends and punk bandmates Jib (“The Grand Budapest Hotel's” Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons from “Transparent”) while trying to avoid the jocks, gang members and drug dealers who populate his world.

Happily, Malcolm has dreams of attending Harvard and also the grades to get in. Things get complicated, however, after the local dope dealer, Dom (Rakim Mayers, aka A$AP Rocky), uses him as a go-between with the beautiful Nakia (Zoe Kravitz), a girl that Malcolm has also adored from afar. Against his better judgement, and partially due to the peer pressure from his friends, Malcolm attends Dom's birthday party at a hip-hop club hoping to snag a dance with Nakia. The police raid the joint putting Dom in jail and scaring Malcolm and his friends into thinking they have barely escaped with their lives. Malcolm is soon shocked to discover that Dom has put a drug shipment the cops are after in his backpack. One phone call from an incarcerated Dom later and Malcolm is on an adventure to get rid of the drugs without damaging his chances to go to his dream school. Oh, and getting Nakia to fall for him wouldn't hurt either

After the first 10 minutes of the movie it's obvious Famuyiwa's vision for the film is in the details. The 1990s references aren't just about Malcolm's flattop or vintage Jordans. Nakia's long braids are a clear homage to Janet Jackson look in “Poetic Justice” and outside of the four original songs written by Pharrell Williams, the soundtrack is filled with classic songs of the era (and not all of them are West Coast Rap either). More importantly, Famuyiwa wants to play with the audiences expectations of the genre. Yes, Malcolm wants to escape his tough neighborhood by trying to avoid all the stereotypical negative influences around him. And yet, by the end of the movie he comes to realize while he might be a “geek,” there might be something gained by being a “menace” as well.  

The unexpected comedy bits, great music and an insightful point of view all contribute to making “Dope” something special, but it simply wouldn't fly without Moore. Frankly, Famuyiwa may have slightly overstuffed “Dope” and during those moments it's Moore who carries it on his back like a true Hollywood veteran. He also delvers a performance that is surprisingly touching. At one point, Nakia has given Malcolm a ride home. As they sit in her car she tries to give him a compliment by saying something akin to, “You must have all the girls in school all over you.” Dom appears heartbroken and his voice becomes as soft as we've ever heard. He replies, “Are you making fun of me?” Dom has been ignored by girls and his peers most of his life. He can't conceive of the compliment she is bestowing on him. And in that one moment, Dom makes you feel all of Moore's years of pain.

Whether or not you see “Dope” when it hits theaters later this year make sure to remember the name Shameik Moore. Because, ladies and gentlemen, talent of his ilk doesn't appear on the scene very often.