Review by Jacquelin Hipes
Bringing true-to-life stories onto the big screen risks a lot of pitfalls along the way. Filmmakers have to find a balance between truth and entertainment, all while imbuing a life with narrative structure and coherence. This is best done by someone invested in, yet ultimately apart from, the events depicted. In the case of MDMA, a semi-autobiographical film about writer/director Angie Wang’s college years, the subject is also the creator, and this ultimately detracts from the powerful themes at its core.
Angie (Annie Q.) has just relocated from her urban New Jersey neighborhood to a posh, private university in Southern California. Used to her “otherness”—both as the child of a working-class family and an Asian-American young woman—she enters this new environment on the offensive. Her sharp first impression quickly earns Angie friends, though: roommate Jeanine (Francesca Eastwood) loves her social adventurousness and classmate Tommy (Scott Keiji Takeda) admires her academic ambition. Bucking expectation, Angie initially fits into her new surroundings well, until an unpaid tuition bill brings reality crashing back down.
In order to stay enrolled, she accepts a job working in an on-campus lab where she has access to all the ingredients needed to synthesize the titular MDMA, more commonly known as popular party drug ecstasy. Soon a side venture meant to keep Angie in her classes and with her friends overwhelms her obligations to both, bringing out a vicious ambition as her product grows in popularity on campus and across the country.
MDMA touches on several themes with pressing relevance: classism, racism, and abuse all factor heavily into the lives of Angie and her friends. Yet it’s clear that, in adapting her own life, writer/director Wang struggles with the most fitting perspective for her own exploits. Tragic episodes from her past play as excuses for her reckless behavior, rather than neutral context for a girl fighting against a stacked deck. Already hobbled by clichéd and often stilted dialogue, characters react with a surprising degree of tolerance and forgiveness when confronted with Angie’s increasingly selfish decisions.
In spite of this (albeit substantial) constraint, Q. and her two co-stars forge moments of impressive camaraderie. The film’s most powerful moments come between Angie and Bree (Aalyrah Caldwell), a little girl she meets volunteering with Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America. Those moments of empathy and meaningful action solicit the greatest sympathy for Angie, and Caldwell is an impressive young actress.
The stumbling blocks born of having a filmmaker too intimately acquainted with the story might have been overcome by a strong ending, yet MDMA simply recements its prior missteps with a trite closing scene that seemingly absolves Angie of guilt and responsibility after she felt bad about things for a while. It’s a limp-wristed conclusion to a story that never bothers to dig into the meat of its moral implications or even just indulge in the more salacious details that will surely hook some viewers into watching. While MDMA manages to be several shades above bad, it squanders an intriguing source of inspiration and shies too far away from the more unsettling, thought-provoking aspects of Angie’s criminal enterprise to ever truly engage.
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