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Onscreen, the African-American experience is almost always limited to either depictions of the hood or of the upper middle class. The crackling comedy "Dope" is technically a film about the former, but it features a main character with a concrete plan to crack the latter and keep going.

More importantly, within its ghetto milieu, it features a dazzlingly diverse array of character types, from drug dealers to Harvard-bred check-cashing tycoons to its main protagonists: geeks.

Our hero is one such geek named Malcolm (Shameik Moore), railed upon at his inner-city L.A. high school as much for his love of '90s hip-hop culture as for his vocabulary. His Harvard application process is rudely disrupted when, by a bizarre chain of events, he finds himself mistakenly in possession of a sizeable amount of Ecstasy. With a variety of unsavory claimants to the stash on his back, Malcolm takes the riskiest — but most lucrative — option and decides to sell the drugs himself. Through an untraceable Internet store, of course.

With his lively editing innovations, eye-popping use of color and '90s hip-hop soundtrack, writer-director Rick Famuyiwa can't help drawing comparison to the energy of early Spike Lee. Working with a wonderful ensemble cast led by the exquisitely restrained Moore, Famuyiwa paints a broad and loving portrait of one of America's worst neighborhoods. His film is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, but it's also bracingly intelligent.

Famuyiwa states his thesis a little too bluntly through a monologue Malcolm delivers toward the end, but it's still a good one, even better for the defiance with which Moore reads it and Famuyiwa stages it. When so many black movie characters are simple stereotypes, it's a pleasure to see a film with real wit about the benefits and pitfalls of playing to and against those expectations.

'Dope'

GRADE: A-

Rated R for language, drug content, sexuality/nudity, and some violence-all involving teens

Running time: 115 minutes

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