As the opening of “Dope” informs us, it’s one of those words that can mean two opposite things: either excellent or stupid. This is fitting because the viewer may well go back and forth on whether the main character of “Dope,” Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is doing the right thing. There’s a narrator for this film, who informs us from the start that Shameik’s character is a geek, but the viewer will probably already pick this up because we first see him discussing bit coins with his mom at breakfast. The viewer may also be temporarily confused about what time period the movie is set in because of the nineties hit that plays when Shameik wakes up and his wardrobe. But no, it’s present day – it’s just that the protagonist and his two friends are really into the nineties music, clothing styles, etc. Besides that, as we’re told, they’re into “white shit” like “getting good grades” and “going to college,” and the plot will center around Shameik’s attempts to get into Harvard. This makes them a target for bullies, but turns out to have a silver lining when they do start to dabble in trouble.
All the antagonists in “Dope” are African American, including the guidance counselor who informs Shameik that he’s being “arrogant,” the over zealous security guard at a party, and the school bullies, so the question of whether they are racists or just garden variety bad guys never arises. Shameik winds up at said party because he’s unexpectedly invited by a neighborhood drug dealer who enlists him to talk to his estranged girlfriend. At the party, things get heated, meaning there’s gunshot, and though Shameik and his two friends escape, he discovers a gun and a stash of drugs in his backpack the next day. Fortunately, even though he sets off the school metal detectors and the security guard’s drug dog starts yelping and lunging for his things, his reputation as a geek protects him from anyone investigating further. But as it turns out, their party host has now landed in jail, so it’s up to Shameik to get the stash to its proper destination.
If this isn’t enough, Shameik has a Harvard interview with a man who formerly lived in his neighborhood and who turns to have unexpected ties to several of the other pre-established characters. It turns out that he will actually have to sell the drugs himself in order to impress the interviewer, so he enlists his two reluctant friends and a stoner/hacker guy they met at band camp to pull this off. This entails using the science lab and the computer room, which apparently no one else ever goes in, and telling the principal they want to enter the Google Science Fair, which makes him surprised but impressed. And ultimately, he does get in, gets the dream girl, and of course, learns a few valuable lessons in the process – the main one being that it’s okay to be yourself, geek or not, but also that you shouldn’t be afraid to try new things that may wind up defining you in ways you didn’t expect.