“Dope” is a movie of defining moments. One, in particular. It comes near the end of the picture when its central character, a high school kid from inner city Inglewood, California, named Malcolm Adekanbi (Shameik Moore), discovers just who he really is.
In a situation in which he finds himself in great danger, he shows incredible determination while trembling with fearful indecision. Those contradictory impulses entwine tightly together in a moment where, for an instant, he’s “half a boy and half a man, half at sea and half on land,” to quote a lyric from an obscure 1960s band called the Flaming Groovies. Malcolm, who worships at the altar of ’90s-era hip-hop and sports a retro high-top fade hairstyle, would never have heard of that group. But hey, it fits.
The moment passes, and when it does he’s left boyhood behind and has become a man. Not long afterward, in a scene that has him calmly facing off against a powerful malevolent businessman, we see the kind of man he’s become: canny, brilliant, focused, fearless.
It’s an astonishing metamorphosis and a brilliant feat of acting. Moore, who’s done some TV work and is a singer and dancer, emerges as a genuine movie star in “Dope.” He’s very good looking and has charisma to burn, and he controls the screen in every scene he’s in. Which is practically every scene.
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The other true star of the movie, which wowed audiences at the Sundance Film Festival, is writer-director Rick Famuyiwa. He grew up in Inglewood and his real-life experiences provided the raw material for the screenplay.
Malcolm is a self-described geek and proud of it. He’s a bright kid who is tight with his two nerdy best friends, Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), a smart-mouthed tomboy, and Jib (Tony Revolori). Skateboard kids, garage band musicians, good students who dream of going to college (Malcolm has his sights set on Harvard), they walk a tightrope between the gangbangers and drug dealers that infest their neighborhood. Until one day they’re toppled off the tightrope by a wild set of unfortunate circumstances that have them running for their lives as they’re embroiled in some heavy-duty drug dealing.
How to escape? How to survive? Hint: with smarts and humor. The humor is raucous and raunchy. The smarts give rise to a scheme involving Bitcoins and advanced computer hacking. The combination of those elements, handled with deftness and intelligence by Famuyiwa, plus Moore’s extraordinary performance, make “Dope” a tremendously affecting movie.