The soundtrack justifies the movie.
Like “Superfly” or “Singles,” the Sundance comedy “Dope” will best be remembered for its music, which expertly integrates new and classic tunes. Every choice — from Nas to Gil Scott-Heron to original songs by Pharrell Williams (an executive producer of the film) — adds mood, momentum or thematic weight.
The movie itself coasts on energy, even if its presentation teeters between charming and amateurish.
Earnest newcomer Shameik Moore stars as Malcolm, a genius nerd in a Fresh Prince haircut who considers “the ’90s the golden age of hip-hop” — and he dresses accordingly. He also plays guitar in a punk band with his best friends, bassist Jib (Tony Revolori of “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) and drummer Diggy (Kiersey Clemons of TV’s “Austin & Ally”).
None of these things do much to improve his social standing at high school, where the senior is hoping to ace his Harvard interview between run-ins with the bullies and gangbangers who rule his Inglewood neighborhood in Southern California.
“A daily navigation between bad and worse options” is how he describes his arduous trek home from school.
Situations get even trickier to navigate when he does a favor for a drug lord (Rakim Mayers) to get closer to the man’s gorgeous girlfriend (Zoë Kravitz) but ends up holding a bag overflowing with a designer narcotic. Unable to return the goods to their incarcerated owner, and with rival hoodlums and law enforcement sniffing around, Malcolm concocts a bold scheme: He’ll sell the stuff to rave-loving white kids over the Internet using untraceable bitcoins as currency.
“Dope” comes across as the debut work of a talented novice. It’s a frenetic piece brimming with references to other films, from a narrative similarity to “Risky Business” and “Go” to in-jokes of giving Kravitz the same hairstyle as Janet Jackson in “Poetic Justice.” Anybody else think Malcolm’s band Awreeoh (pronounced Oreo) shares a lot in common with the trio in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”?
Yet writer/director Rick Famuyima has been making features since 1998, when his breakthrough buddy-comedy “The Wood” put him on Hollywood’s radar. Maybe that’s why “Dope” feels more like an homage to a young hipster project than an actual young hipster project.
For all its pop-culture savvy, the coming-of-age flick takes reckless detours. Scenes with drug dealers seem straight out of a TV cop show — perhaps even one from the ’90s. They’re neither genuine nor interesting and undermine the otherwise loose camaraderie of the picture typified by Malcolm and his sidekicks.
Equally distracting are extended sequences involving the too-horny/too-beautiful sister (Chanel Iman) of a rich acquaintance that merely look like excuses to film her in various states of undress.
Famuyima’s endeavor isn’t lacking distinctive characters or clever commentary. Just cohesiveness. “Dope” works better as a collection of individual, occasionally random moments.
If only the movie could flow and groove as effortlessly as its soundtrack.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Rated: R | Time: 1:44