Coming-of-age stories are about going through something defining. Movies like The Breakfast Club endure because the experiences they capture, like grappling with identity or awkward sexuality, are meant to be universal, signposts that mark the moments where we quit being kids. Resolution comes as each character — our teenaged avatars — take those first steps toward finding their place in the world.
Dope, which premiered at Sundance and arrives in theaters this week, is every inch a coming-of-age story, but it’s about being black as much as it’s about growing up. Writer / director Rick Famuyiwa (The Wood, Brown Sugar) has created a heady hybrid of a John Hughes teen comedy and a John Singleton hood drama: his characters are as concerned about going to prom and getting the girl as they are with surviving in the midst of ever-present gang violence. Combining those tried-and-true elements can often be jarring, leading to a tonal dissonance Famuyiwa can never quite rise above. Still, Dope is right up there with last year’s Dear White People in staking a claim for new stories about being young and black in America.
Dope is about Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a ‘90s hip-hop geek living in the Bottoms of Inglewood, California, one of the most dangerous areas of Los Angeles. Despite his surroundings, he resists stereotypes: he gets straight A's, plays in a punk band called Awreeoh with fellow ‘90s obsessives Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), and is applying to Harvard. From the start, Moore’s Malcolm comes across as smart, funny, and relatable, and his (and presumably Famuyiwa’s) love for the Golden Age of Hip-Hop — from his collection of Yo! MTV Raps tapes to his high-top haircut — pervades the entire movie, especially in the soundtrack that incorporates classics from Digable Planets and A Tribe Called Quest. Malcolm occupies the "misfit you love to root for" archetype. He’s special in this world, which means he’s poised to escape it, and he knows it.
The movie starts on the eve of an interview Malcolm has scheduled with local Harvard alum Austin Jacoby (Roger Guenveur Smith), whose recommendation could be his ticket to the Ivy League. But a chance meeting with charismatic neighborhood drug lord Dom (Rakim "A$AP Rocky" Mayers) and local girl Nakia (Zoë Kravitz) lands him and his friends at a party where all hell breaks loose. In the aftermath, the trio discovers they’re holding onto a small shipment of high-quality MDMA and need to find a way to sell it off before the feds catch up to them. Things go from bad to worse Risky Business-style, and it’s both hilarious and thrilling. And while many of the film’s joys are essentially timeless, meme-y references, WorldStar-esque videos, and Bitcoin jokes place the story unmistakably in 2015.
But Dope is most interested in playing with our preconceived ideas about who black teens are allowed to be and what it means to grow up where they live, and that’s the beauty of the film. Diggy is a lesbian who presents as a boy and no one bats an eye. Dom is a hard-edged criminal, but also a gifted smooth-talker with a love for "exchanges of ideas." The same could even be said for Austin Jacoby, the Harvard man who winds up being a far more sinister presence in the community than Malcolm and his friends ever realized. Not everyone is so nuanced. There are plenty of one-note characters, like the school bullies and the tragically wasted Kravitz as Nakia, an underdeveloped love interest who is sidelined for much of the film. But Famuyiwa complicates things just enough to toy with our expectations, and as the story wears on, Malcolm is forced to adjust his expectations of himself. For all his ambition to leave his situation behind, he can’t escape the fact that his home is a part of who he is. His defining moment comes in realizing he needs to embrace this part of his identity before becoming something better.
That these people are more than stock characters is best illustrated in a single scene. After outrunning one of the city’s drug players and realizing that he’s now a drug dealer himself, Malcolm finds himself on the bus home. He dozes off, and in a dream, he sees his friends and all the dangerous characters he met that day joining him, taking their seats on the bus in front of him. It’s as close to a Breakfast Club moment as the movie could hope for: an ensemble of diverse people living in boxes placed on them by their world, all of whom could be so much more. But Dope’s teenage America looks a lot different than the lily-white Chicago suburbs of John Hughes films.
Millions of kids like Malcolm are waiting to tell their stories
In a climactic scene, Malcolm reads his Harvard admissions essay. He asks that we picture two students: one a straight-A student in a band, the other a drug dealer. Harvard doesn’t know those two students are one and the same. The former would probably have an easier time getting into an Ivy League school. But at this point we know full well that Malcolm is both — and has a chance to become more. And as he walks off wearing a hoodie à la Trayvon Martin, we’re reminded of the millions of kids like him out there waiting for their chance. It’s their turn.