A coming-of-age story that is at once a parody of, and a tribute to, ’90s-vintage ghetto dramas, “Dope” wears its pop-culture obsessions on its sleeve. So does its hero, Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a teenager navigating his senior year of high school in a rough part of Los Angeles. And not only his sleeve: Malcolm’s whole look, from his high-top fade to his vintage Air Jordans, expresses a geeky commitment to hip-hop’s golden decade, which for him lasted from roughly 1988 until 2001 (that is, from “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” to “The Blueprint.”)
This is not just a matter of musical taste. The only legacy Malcolm’s unseen father left him was a VHS cassette of a blaxploitation classic. Malcolm’s knowledge of movies, television and comic books — with and without African-American themes and pedigrees — is extensive, and he knows a lot of other things, too. He and his two best friends, Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori), are defiant counterstereotypes. They get good grades in school and play in a punk band. Malcolm, with stellar SAT scores, is preparing for his Harvard admissions interview (with an alumnus played by Roger Guenveur Smith) just as the movie’s hectic plot gets underway.
Written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa (“Our Family Wedding,” “The Wood,” “Brown Sugar”), “Dope” has a lot going on, and also a lot going for it. Mr. Famuyiwa has a way of cutting and pasting influences that demonstrates a fan’s sincere enthusiasm. He swerves from bouncy jokiness to violence — and from long, talky takes to quick, syncopated edits — with the dexterity of someone who has studied the early work of Quentin Tarantino. He shoves disparate genre elements together as if pulling jigsaw puzzle pieces from a half-dozen different boxes, and if the finished work isn’t quite convincing, it’s still fun to look at.
Malcolm, who lives with his mother (Kimberly Elise), a bus driver, is bullied in school and harassed on the street by the drug dealers who control the local corners. He, Jib and Diggy respond in the usual way, with cunning, sarcasm and, when those tactics fail, desperate flight. But they are caught up in a caper when Malcolm does a favor for a midlevel gangster named Dom (ASAP Rocky) and accepts an invitation to his birthday party. After an eventful evening, Malcolm ends up with a backpack full of drugs, a handgun and a lot of confusing instructions from various dangerous characters.
Propelled by an expertly selected soundtrack reflective of Malcolm’s interests, “Dope” zigs and zags and occasionally spins its wheels. Malcolm is smitten with Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), which makes him Dom’s rival. She is charmed by Malcolm’s virginal, brainy charisma — Mr. Moore, a master of sly deadpan, is almost too good-looking for the role — and so is Lily (Chanel Iman), the wayward daughter of a drug kingpin. The movie isn’t heavily invested in its female characters, sticking to a basic template: There are a good bad girl, a bad bad girl, a buddy and a mom.
Otherwise, it’s boys in the ’hood all the way, with Blake Anderson (as a hippie hacker) and Quincy Brown (as a rich kid desperately striking outlaw poses) popping up when extra comedy or extra mayhem seems to be in order. Mr. Famuyiwa may be interested in mocking and subverting stereotypes, but he’s unwilling to go beyond them entirely, to populate his sunny Southern California mean streets with fully rounded human beings. He also leans too heavily on the audience’s presumed prejudices, or maybe on prejudices that some members of the audience will be eager to attribute to somebody else.
Does “Dope” treat Malcolm — an ambitious, intelligent, nonviolent black adolescent — like a freak, or does it depict a world in which he’s viewed that way? Does the film engage its precursors (movies like “Boyz N the Hood” and “Menace II Society”) as update, pastiche or critique, or as some combination? These are complicated questions, but your answers are likely to determine your response to this amiable, energetic, scrambled movie. It’s easy to root for Malcolm, to admire his pluck and share in his enthusiasm. It may be a little harder to buy what he and “Dope” are selling.
“Dope” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). N.W.A. 2 Live Crew.