Film Review: MDMA

A killer premise—based on fact—fuels a film that is often powerful and moving but seriously botched by its auteur’s uncertain technique.
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Hot on the heels of Crazy Rich Asians comes another Chinese director, Angie Wang, also seeking to explode certain staid and nerdy stereotypes of the so-called model minority, proving that they can be just as nonconformist, rebellious, even criminal and mad-sexy as anybody else. Tapping some of her own experiences, Wang relates the spun-out saga of Angie (Annie Q.), who in 1984 has left her working=class single dad in New Jersey to attend an elite Bay Area university. She swiftly falls into campus party mode, thanks to her rich roommate Jeanine (Francesca Eastwood), who herself has issues with bulimia, cutting and an alcoholic, insensitive mother.

It’s not long before they hedonistically progress from weed, booze and coke to the trippy wonder of ecstasy (MDMA). Angie, whose skills in science are probably the only “traditional” Asian thing about her, learns how to cook up the stuff to sell on campus and in clubs, thereby paying her tuition, which is killing her father. She gets in too deep, though, and not only runs afoul of some very dangerous, exploitative criminals she does business with, but is also partially responsible for the death of one of her very few real friends.

The filmmakers and cast here are nothing if not committed, and some of the work they do in MDMA is undeniably impressive and boldly risk-taking. Unfortunately, Wang isn’t much of a writer, and her screenplay is a roiling yet random stew of melodramatic elements all too calculated to wring the most extreme emotional reaction from the viewer. Angie’s backstory is a grim one, with a mother who walked out on her and her dad to pursue a new life with a new man. Her father is no day in the park either, and Ron Yuan’s gruntingly inaccessible, near-incoherent performance doesn’t help matters. Jeanine’s self-destructive dark side is just dipped into, making it seem a facile attempt to be timely and relevant for so many troubled Millennials. And then there’s the needless subplot involving Angie’s volunteer work as a big sister to a little black girl whose parents are violent crackheads. It reads more as an easy way to gain sympathy for our admittedly abrasive tough egg of a heroine, while also delving into certain ghetto stereotypes a particular film like this would do well to avoid at all cost.

You never get a sense of the excessive ’80s period (caught so definitively in Less Than Zero), apart from some usual suspect-MTV hits on the soundtrack. And too often, the movie deliriously goes off on its own ecstasy-type tangents, with an excess of hazy footage devoted to none-too-original depictions of Angie & Co. woozily partying or having sex. This, added to the malnourished screenplay, makes the film seem longer than it is.

Annie Q. gives a fierce and feisty performance that, if not the most nuanced, nevertheless wins you over through her sheer determination to not only survive but thrive. She always just happens to be a little quicker and smarter than anyone else around her, and pays a severe price for it, whatever the rewards she nefariously accumulates. As the nerdy virgin of a chemistry major who is hopelessly smitten by her—and even helps her get equipment for her drugmaking—Scott Keiji Taketa is very touching, lending a much-needed dose of sweetness to all the hard-core goings-on around him. Those goings-on had the potential to produce a great film, which this assuredly not. But there are more than a few Asian-American party-candy purveyors out there, so we may see one before too long.