“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.
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.