Malcolm (Shameik Moore) lives in an area of Los Angeles known as The Bottoms, and he doesn't exactly fit in with some of the roughest denizens of the city who populate it, which is why he self-identifies as a geek. Luckily, he’s not alone, for he has two best friends, Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), the latter a lesbian whose family prays for her every Sunday and it doesn't make a whit of difference to her outlook. They are close enough that they have formed their own band when they are not studying and indulging in their other pastime, nineties hip-hop as they hold up that decade as a golden age of music and culture, not something their contemporaries at school necessarily agree with. But they are determined to stay on the straight and narrow...
Though one theme in Dope was that if you're growing up in a crime-ridden environment, then it's going to affect you sooner or later, and so it is with Malcolm and his chums in a movie that in spite of having talent like Pharrell Williams (who provided songs), Sean Combs and Forest Whitaker (who narrated) on board as producers to bring this to the wider world, failed to find its audience in spite of being a far better coming of age tale than many others that went on to be unworthy cult movies (mentioning no Perks of Being a Wallflower). What this had, and demonstrating what is really needed when making a low budget film, was an excellent script, in this case from director Rick Famuyiwa who set out his stall and then tied everything up neatly by the end.
It wasn't a masterpiece or anything, but it was noticeably far more satisfying, funny and imaginative within its means than many others aiming for the same market, and the nineties references widened the appeal to Generation X nostalgists looking for a good reason to have faith in the future if ver kids were still finding worth in what they were enjoying at the same point in life. Fair enough, Famuyiwa was no spring chicken himself, and was even harking back to his debut The Wood from the nineties that had picked up a cult following back then, but by depicting his young hero - Moore didn’t quite convince as nerdy in spite of the flat top - as resourceful and managing to outwit the bad guys against seemingly overwhelming odds, he gave us someone to cheer for.
Certainly the message here was to learn all you can so you wouldn't end up either selling drugs for a living or worse, taking drugs for your life, so stay in school kids and get an education, but it wasn't as if the film was a Stand and Deliver or Dangerous Minds where the kids from the wrong side of the tracks found out about the major dose of self-respect you can achieve by improving your wisdom, partly because Malcom was already aware of that at the point the story began. Indeed, the plot made a virtue of his outsider status because it made him easier to identify with for the target audience, as being keen to study is not often depicted as cool in the popular media, not least in a lot of hip-hop, so it was useful to remember that maybe that didn't matter so much if you could look back from a more privileged position than those who didn't study were landed in.
That plot actually had Malcolm, Jib and Diggy doing more than rubbing shoulders with the criminal fraternity day by day as they are stuck up to their noses in trouble when a trip to a nightclub the local drug dealer Dom (Rakim Mayers, aka rapper A$ap Rocky) allows them access to for his own amusement ends badly as the place is raided to retrieve the batch of MDMA Dom was selling on the premises. Somehow it winds up in Malcolm's backpack, along with a handgun, and he only realises when he gets to school the next day and is allowed through the metal detector because the security can't believe he would be packing heat. There follows a highly amusing runaround as Malcolm and pals try to get rid of the drugs, deciding after all sorts of antics and rum business (plus some very funny jokes) that they will have to give in and turn to crime themselves, selling the merchandise in some ingenious schemes, because as geeks they can think their way out of their problems. That Dope succeeded in this without getting too preachy, though the more cynical will detect that element, resulted in a movie well worth taking a chance on.