In 1985, the year First Lady Nancy Reagan dropped a hyperactive “Just Say No” music video with Casey Kasem and LaToya Jackson, the DEA criminalized a new drug: ecstasy. “MDMA,” Angie Wang’s semi-autobiographical drama about her whirlwind freshman semester as the drug queen of a private college she couldn’t otherwise afford, plunges us into the crazy days of those last legal months when the chemistry student’s handmade purple pills were potent enough to derail her life. Wang has a silent cameo as a club czarina who gives her younger self (Annie Q.) a portentous look. Otherwise, “MDMA” is all excess: giant hair, stacks of silver bangles, dramatic flashbacks, and lots of shouting, though curiously Angie sounds less like an immigrant’s daughter from the Newark tenements than a Valley girl throwing a temper tantrum at the mall.
Voice aside, east coast Angie does not fit in with her west coast classmates, who are all a foot taller and dressed in preppy pastels. For a moment, we’re worried her yuppie roommate Jeanine (Francesca Eastwood) will be a corrupting influence. Jeanine moves into their dorm with a secret bar built into her expensive suitcase, and her own short lifetime of familial resentments to escape. But from their first college party, it’s clear Angie is the one who downs every drink, and drug, like a dare. Annie Q’s performance is all bravado, though Wang knows that cheap bluster doesn’t buy much in a friendship where Jeanine literally tries to share her wealth by offering Angie hand-me-down sweaters. Jeanine’s financial safety net keeps her from seeing that her BFF is just one stumble away from disaster — and Angie’s pride keeps her from admitting she needs help. The movie opens with Angie stripping instead of studying before leaping back to the beginning. Even in “MDMA’s” money-making montages, there’s no getting suckered that she’s found a shortcut to the American dream.
Angie is at once ambitious and reckless, calculating and thoughtless — a clash that both captures the confusion of being 18 (“I’m whoever you want me to be,” says Annie to a frat boy suitor) and leaves us wondering if the adult filmmaker is able to see her own story clearly through the party haze. A trio of men try to pierce Angie’s armored bustier: a gold medal-chasing athlete (Pierson Fode) who sees her as his next challenge, a dweeby science whiz (Scott Keiji Takeda) who sees her as a girl to rescue, and a shady club owner (Noah Segan) who sees her as someone to exploit. Yet, Wang doesn’t pressure the audience to rally to Annie’s defense. She allows the audience to dislike her. (You sense that in the ’80s before Wang became a social worker, then a filmmaker, she didn’t like herself much, either.)
What works in the film is more intellectual than emotional, the way Wang sketches how the trauma Angie’s father suffered escaping starvation in China crippled her own life, even though she was technically born free. There are invisible bars that separate her from her sheltered classmates — and keep her distant from the audience, too. When Angie sits at the table of a Chinese friend’s loud and loving Christmas family dinner, she looks completely alone.
“MDMA” sells itself as a slick crime thriller with ecstasy-fueled threesomes, a soundtrack heavy on the Kajagoogoo, and a slow-motion sex scene that could be an outtake from “Risky Business.” Yet, none of the sizzle is as compelling as this character study of a young woman who confesses that her only childhood companion was the TV. Her father (Ron Yuan) was too busy working in the back of a Chinese restaurant to parent. His big speech is, “Life is cruel.” In essence, Angie is a wolf-child raised in a cave, which explains why she’s quick to go on the attack, and why she instinctively tries to rescue an abused girl (Aalyrah Caldwell) who’s even worse off. Angie understands this hungry child in a way her friends never will — in a way that no one can without listening to survivors like Wang. Wang’s need to tell her sordid story is more urgent than the story itself. That alone makes this frustrating film valuable, even though “MDMA” goes down like a vitamin.