President George W. Bush famously called-out the “soft bigotry of low expectations” under which an entire demographic given-up-on — like teens Malcolm, Diggy, and Jib in the poignant comedy “Dope” — navigate daily between bad and worse choices to discover a path towards maturity on a journey beset with too few mentors to cheer them over the condescendingly low bar systemically set for them.
“You shouldn’t settle for what’s expected,” Malcolm tells a neighborhood 20-something who is studying for her GED against all odds, highlighting the optimistic though pragmatic sentiment he carries through the film.
A cross between the comedy of 1975’s “Cooley High” and the grit of the 1991 breakout drama “Boyz n the Hood” (see sidebar), Rick Famuyiwa’s urban coming-of-age tale is set in legendarily troublesome South Central L.A. where a few ’90s-hip-hop-obsessed teens manage to swim against the fierce current.
Like the epic blackjack takedown “21,” in which the lead lacks a requisite life experience that dazzles, Malcolm too has hopes of attending Harvard. But his high school advisor warns he won’t get there with his personal essay on N.W.A. rapper Ice Cube. The cocksure teen’s response? “If Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote about Ice Cube,” he says pointing to his paper, “This would be what it was like.” (FWIW, the N.W.A. biopic “Straight Outta Compton,” opens in August).
The plot gets some traction when a neighborhood doper stashes a gun and a cache of designer drugs in Malcolm’s nerdy backpack during a raid. Stuck between a rock and hard time, Malcolm establishes an untraceable Bitcoin-based distribution network. The resulting dual persona enables him to thrive by day and survive by night. Somewhere in there is a muddled message about who he is versus who he is perceived to be with the advantage going to those who don’t “fit in” because they benefit from multiple perspectives. To be fair, that part’s weak and this one does a far better job showing than telling.
The humor is hit or miss. A running social media montage of tweets and video orbit around a mashup meme of one unfortunate user’s drug-induced incontinence (to put it delicately) outside the neighborhood “Seven Bucks” coffee shop. A bystander laments, “How am I supposed to eat my pound cake?” and moments later, it is getting more views than Sweet Brown’s “Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That.”
Clearly, “Dope” is not for everyone but its insight and authentic vibe set it apart from a lot of other films targeting the same audience.