Although gifted with a promising premise, the film ultimately falls short of what it could be.
This might be obvious to some, but not all stories can be easily told in film or are even meant to be told on film at all. One such example is autobiographical stories, a staple of the literary industry. Biographical stories are often sourced for new films, which would lead one to think autobiographies are no different, especially given the fact that most experienced filmmakers will insert bits and pieces of themselves into a film. However, that’s not the case. Any experienced filmmaker will also tell you that being too involved or in control of the production of a film and too personally connected to the story will lead to either a work of pure genius, or much more commonly, an awkward mishmash of scenes. I mention all of this because this film MDMA, which is the autobiographical film debut for Angie Wang, falls in to the latter category. Wang recounts her truly harrowing struggles as a young girl and how that eventually led her down a bad road to being a Walter White like figure in college. In many ways this sounds like an interesting story with an interesting protagonist and, given the time period of the 80s, an interesting setting. The sad truth is that this film categorically falls flat across the board.
To begin, the biggest weakness of this film is the screenplay. While the dialogue itself is not terribly bad, although it is somewhat cliched and derivative, the characters who dialogue are what makes this script awful. At the midpoint of this film time wise and plot wise, Angie is asked by a friend and love interest “Who is Angie Wang?”. This is a decent way to end a first act, but this question is hauntingly my biggest fault with this once promising film. Who is Angie Wang? Why does she do what she does? None of her actions line up in a logical way. The film is not told like a series of events that lead in to one another, but as if someone is telling you a story impromptu at a bar one night. Bits and pieces of information are thrown at you but they do not weave into a cohesive story. Angie begins the film by showing she comes from a fractured, strict, and poor household which is contrasted with the cozy, prestigious, and expensive university she leaves to attend. She soon finds her way to her first college party and immediately begins asking the local jock drug dealer about his distribution source. In what world is that a logical transition? Her character was introduced as a timid, meek, and altogether nice girl, but in practice, she’s something else. This is true for the remainder of the film. The motivation for her character for the rest of the film is weak at best. She can’t pay for college but is a skilled chemist, so she makes ecstasy, but pursues this side activity to the point of failing her classes. More motivation is needed for this massive leap. For example, what is Angie studying? What does she want to do in life? What are her goals? Why must she go to this specific college and not a more affordable local school? From watching this film, I’m left assuming her career ambitions involve only drug dealing. Even when offered real employment opportunities by her kind friend Tommy, she turns him down flat. If the supposed story that Angie was never “good” to begin with and did always aspire to a life of crime, that’s fine if it was established.
Let’s compare her character to that of young Henry Hill from Goodfellas, because both are similarly immigrant youths who came from a strict household and chose a life of crime. Henry Hill opens the film by saying all he ever wanted to be was a gangster, that being a gangster was better than being president. Right off the bat, we know Henry has no aspirations to be a doctor or anything like that, but he is a motivated individual with a clear projection as to how he wants his life to go. From his youth he’s shown himself to be a troublemaker and a criminal. However, Angie’s character doesn’t convey that at all. We go from a supposed nice girl at home to a girl gone wild at college. Intermittent flashbacks to her dark past here and there, while sparse, are genuinely great scenes but are strangely placed and don’t fully explain why things are transpiring as they are.
In addition to that, the character interactions don’t make sense. For example, Jeanine and Angie seem to have good chemistry by the way they talk to each other, but then Angie speaks about her as if Jeanine puts her down or treats her like a sidekick. There’s very little evidence for this and further adds to the irrationality of the structure of this story. The worst offense of poor character interactions is between Angie and her “little sister”, Bree. While Bree may be a child and it could be attributed to the innocence of children to explain why Bree immediately trusts Angie, it is a big leap for Angie, based on two meetings alone, to decide that she is the child’s only hope and then takes some borderline extreme steps. It shows compassion, but also does so a touch poorly.
The last big gripe I have with this film is the acting and to be brief, it is horrendous throughout the film from almost everyone. Lead roles in indie films often serve as the perfect proving ground for talented actors and actresses to show their skills. However, Annie Q as Angie is easily one of the worst lead performances I’ve ever seen in indie film. She has some screen presence but she is utterly monotone throughout the film. Yetide Badaki is not a character, she’s a caricature who is all over the place. It is yet another meaty role that is given no justice. The only decent performances in this film were by Francesca Eastwood and Elisa Donovan. I’m reticent to lay any fault or blame on this cast, but will instead attribute this all to the director, whose job it is to ensure these characters are brought to life and can interact with each other. Instead what I saw was a group of people who read lines as if they’ve had no training or experience.
Lastly, I would like to say that while the first half of this film is horrendous, the second half of this film is a somewhat strong surprise and does show that Angie Wang, the writer and director, does have some talent as a filmmaker and perhaps just picked the wrong film to debut with. Her passion and her pain were very evident in the flashback scenes which were all genuinely great. I do hope to see more from her because you can see that the filmmaker she was at the beginning of this film and at the end are two completely different people, for the better. As a final note to any aspiring filmmaker out there looking to learn from contemporaries, it doesn’t help to begin a film with a scene from the middle of the film and then rewind to tell the story of how our protagonist got there.
The film is now playing.