MDMA: MDM-Eh, by Alexander Miller
At first glance, the trailer for Angie Wang’s autobiographical MDMA seems to bear a kinship to popular drug sagas (à la Blow or American Made) with its rags-to-riches narrative and “true story” seal of approval. However, for all the films indicative excess and razzle-dazzle MDMA is a rather flaccid and uneven look at the life of a college freshman who supplements her difficult financial situation by manufacturing and selling the lucrative party drug. Of course, there’s more to it than that, but that doesn’t necessarily make the film any better.
MDMA opens with a title card, “New York City, 1985.” We can tell our protagonist has already fallen from grace. She’s immersed among the elite of the city’s club scene, replete with period garb, leather, piercings, big hair, jewelry; Angie dutifully rips a gagger of cocaine before her shift as a cage dancer. After a mysterious phone call, we’re transported to Newark, New Jersey, “One Year Earlier” where after a brief exchange with her no-nonsense father (played by the physically imposing Ron Yuan) is carted off to Las Angeles. There she meets her roommate Jeanine, who comes off as a hybrid of Jackie Onassis and Marilyn Monroe, (she’s your Reagnanoid dream girl) from the outset, a seemingly gleeful extrovert with some of her own demons.
When the two make it to a frat party, Angie is primed to put down some drinks, eat some drugs, and bed some dudes. While all of that does sound like the standard “college experience,” this is where ecstasy is introduced and, when Angie realizes that her financial aid is cut off and paired with the high demand for the drug, she marshals the resources to start manufacturing some quality X.
The first act sets up the ensuing action with understandable motivations and some obligatory supporting characters. But this exactly where the various threads that makeup Wang’s feature get hopelessly muddled to that point of relative obfuscation. Angie’s sojourn into the world of drug chemistry is precisely underdeveloped, the second we learn about her financial aid issues, she sees a flyer about a lab assistant and before you can say “who cares” Angie’s got a crackling batch of potent dope. Not that we need a drug tutorial or a labored montage of beakers and Bunsen burners, but the film finds all the time in the world to explore the lives of her friends, and their issues such as family dramas, eating disorders, and abandonment issues.
Aside from her roommate Jeanine, there’s also Tommy (Scott Takeda), a straight-laced, dweebish type who is openly carrying the torch for the headstrong Angie but is pushed away by her all the same. The third and quite possibly dullest spoke in this wheel of players is Alex (Pierson Fode), Angie’s square-jawed, frat product boyfriend whose presence is merely a tool to emphasize the recalcitrant nature of our rebellious lead.
These seeming diversions would contribute if these supporting players were cronies in her miniature ecstasy empire but Tommy only pilfers some occasional goods while Jeanine and Alex merely pop up for expository dialogue and basic dramatic emphasis.
Given the titular implications of MDMA, the film seems to forget that ecstasy is the driving point of the story and, when we do get a glimpse of Angie’s foray into drug dealing, it’s so underwhelming that the misplaced energy begins to wear to the point where you not only tire of the characters but the film itself. The most perverse irony is the lack of gravity or consequence in relation to the drug itself, every time the characters imbibe in the protagonists wonder capsules everyone’s having a ball, partying, carrying on and getting laid; with the following day spent in glowing recollection of how awesome a time everyone had rolling their faces off.
In a movie about the pitfalls of excess and dangers of drug dealing, it’s odd that everyone seems to forget the calamitous emotional shit storm that is an ecstasy hangover in writing this movie.
Although MDMA is a flawed venture into a story that was either poorly conceived or not that interesting to begin with, there is an interesting cultural parallel when Angie becomes a Big Sister to a young black girl named Bree who comes from a broken home and was raised by a negligent drug-addicted mother. While the crack epidemic is still roiling decades later, it was a relatively new phenomenon in the mid-eighties, crack is often seen as a skid-row/rock bottom type drug, often relegated to minorities and inner cities. Meanwhile, ecstasy is on the other side of the spectrum, a status token for privileged college kids, with little, to no stigma attached. At first, this subplot felt like another aimless sidestep, but it turned out to be one of the few moments the film revealed some depth, not enough to take us out of the shallow waters MDMA had us wadding in all around.
Francesca Eastwood has some energy as the debutante Jeanine but Takeda’s Tommy character is so bland it’s impossible to recognize his acting chops. Annie Q. wields some convincing power as the livewire surrogate to the director, but begins to squirm with the films ascending action. MDMA is being distributed by Shout! Factory’s new distribution arm, Shout! Studios. Hopefully the beloved purveyors of quality DVDs and Blu-rays will pick up some better titles.