Director: Angie Wang
MPAA Rating: NA
Run Time: 98 minutes
My favorite guilty pleasure in genre filmmaking is drug movies. Stoner movies are fun, obviously, but the real highs come when hard drugs enter the picture (no pun intended) because you’re either rewarded with pure manic genius like The Wolf of Wall Street or incompetent hilarity like Blow. MDMA certainly falls further on the incompetent side of the scale, but it’s not without its merits.
MDMA follows Angie Wang (Annie Q), a college chemistry student from a poor immigrant family who, to afford her exorbitant tuition, starts manufacturing ecstasy in her class chemistry lab. Frat parties start generating real profits as Angie gets deeper into the criminal underworld. Included in the mix is a poor family that Angie gets involved with through Big Brothers Big Sisters, supporting the child of a drug addicted mother, and a best friend who self harms due to an overbearing mother. The harsh realities of poverty and addiction then provoke flashbacks to Angie’s childhood of violence and abuse at the hands of her parents and step parents. None of this comes off as authentic but, again, this isn’t necessarily a problem.
Debut features from new filmmakers generally receive harsher criticism than they ought to, especially when their films have small budgets. MDMA looks like a debut film, sounds like a debut film, and feels like a debut film – and yet all of those make for a weirdly compelling viewing experience. Often falling into camp (not that this is a bad thing), the college students feel refreshingly and authentically dumb. They’re bitchy, performative and one-dimensional clichés; exactly the characteristics of self-important rich college students.
Now, it seems important to mention that Angie is an autobiographical representation of director Angie Wang – the suggestion being that the events portrayed in the film are coming right from the horse’s mouth. This only adds to the absurdity of the events, none of it feels real because the filmmaking doesn’t work but it’s all strangely familiar.
It maintains a weird balance of just enough technical competence to convince you you are indeed watching a real movie while not being good enough to develop any real emotional ties to the characters. The genre trappings are all there from the introduction of self hatred in the protagonist for her transgressions to the escalation of violence with profit. And as already stated, the unrealistic performances are simultaneously impossible to believe in their seriousness but totally believable in the air of invincibility so common among college students.
If all of that feels contradictory, so does the film. It’s not incompetent enough to laugh at but it’s not good enough to take seriously. It’s not boring enough to lose your attention but not exciting enough to be compelling. It’s a mess but a strangely watchable one, and I honestly think that’s good enough for a recommendation.