MDMA views the '80s in a gaudy nutshell: lines of coke at a dance club, "outrageous" wardrobe and hair, and nightclub debauchery so strenuous it looks drastically overly-rehearsed. A working class Chinese-American student named Angie Wong (played by TV-and-indie-veteran Annie Q.), from Newark, New Jersey, gets a scholarship at "Crocker University," a prestigious West Coast diploma mill (shot at the Presidio and other San Francisco locations). While there, in addition to binge drinking, getting laid, and studying like everyone else, Angie pulls a Walter White and starts cooking up batches of Ecstasy in the college chemistry lab to sell to partying classmates. Business is good, and before long she's on the slippery slope to dopeyville.
There are only two ways to handle this type of material: the do-gooder way or the raunchy, exploitative way. Neophyte writer-director Angie Wang—MDMA is the only movie in the New York native's professional filmography—walks the line between these approaches, erring toward the redemptive. It's definitely not hard-edged, despite some tame sex scenes and the lead character's combative "outsider" point of view. The only way it could ever be considered noir is with an extensive rewrite. Filmmaker Wang reportedly based the story on her own experiences, the fictional version of which includes the character bottoming out as a go-go dancer and getting shot at by a gangster rival.
By ordinary crime-pic standards, Angie's career is mild stuff—the main selling point is that it's unusual to see a petite Asian woman dealing drugs. That's obviously the story's appeal for co-producer Richard J. Bosner (Fruitvale Station), as well as for Asian-American film festivals such as CAAMFest, where the film played in 2017 under the name Cardinal X (it has also been titled Angie X). Whatever handle we know her by, Angie is tougher than she looks.
Wang's writing is better than her directing, and the movie's challenges extend to the acting. Once we adjust our gaze to straight-to-streaming Friday-midnight-show level, Annie Q. and Francesca Eastwood (daughter of Clint Eastwood and Frances Fisher) turn in workable performances as roommates/partners in crime—Angie and Eastwood's Jeanine also experiment sexually with each other back at the dorm. Rebellious Angie generally makes asses of the laddies, with Scott Keiji Takeda as a stereotypical Asian nerd and daytime-drama star Pierson Fode as the equally cardboard suburban Caucasian jock.
But the social milieu and dialogue score a few points—the script makes big fun of Orange County, USC, Thanksgiving, and other "white" brand names. Caught between White Square and Chinese Square options, our Ecstasy queen opts for the psychedelic shoe-gaze-and-lollipop trade. So, there's more going on here than meets the eye. Too bad. In a movie, everything should be onscreen.
An abridged version of this review previously appeared in the East Bay Express.
Kelly Vance saw 99 River Street on TV at age eleven and, ever since, has had an irrepressible urge to beat up Jack Lambert. Kelly is the chief film reviewer at the East Bay Express and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.