Autobiographical films can be a difficult nut to crack. Spend too much time with the minutiae, the audience can grow bored. Spend too little time, however, the audience has nothing to latch onto. There’s a delicate sweet spot wherein the film enables the audience to get all the details they need in order to understand the journey of the subject in all their rises and falls. Written and directed by Angie Wang, MDMA is her semi-autobiographical story, depicting a tumultuous year in her life in which Angie was the premier MDMA (more commonly known as Ecstasy) dealer on the west coast. Brutally honest and brisk in pacing, MDMA reveals itself as neither heartwarming nor demoralizing, but as a cautionary tale of what happens when we ignore our conscience and chase euphoria.
East coast transplant Angie Wang (Annie Q.) leaves behind her father Michael (Ron Yuan) in New York to attend Crocker University in San Francisco, California. Coming from a working class family, Angie has a different view of wealth than the rest of her peers. While they go out on shopping trips, she’s studying, spending time with her “Little Sister” program assignment Bree (Aalyrah Caldwell), and trying to figure out how to pay her tuition. While attending a frat party with her roommate Jeanine (Francesca Eastwood), she sees how quickly the local dealer sells out of Ecstasy and realizes she can make a better batch herself. Once caught up in the easy cash, Angie loses perspective and herself in the process.
This film showcases engaging direction from first-time writer/director Wang. She has a specific vision for each scene and her choices demonstrate great thought and patience. In one scene in which Angie goes to a club with Pierson Fode’s frat boy Alex, the camera stays focused on Angie. Most directors would widen the shot to ensure the audience sees Alex fully as he stands next to her, yet, by keeping the focus on Angie, Wang narrows everything in the scene to a specific range. Alex, a mostly disposable character to the overall story, is seen to the same way to Angie, therefore, the camerawork continues that through the scene. In another scene that sees Angie engaging in various carnal activities, a different director may choose wider shots to show the audience everything that’s happening in all its salacious glory, but – once again – Wang goes a different path opting to narrow the focus on Angie to see where her focus (hint: not on her partners) is located. Much of the film succeeds by the framing of scenes like these, even using flashbacks or voice-overs, to communicate Angie’s psychological turmoil or focus. This is absolutely where MDMA shines.
Unfortunately, where MDMA suffers is in the narrative. On the whole, there’s never a dull moment due to the brisk pacing which keeps the story moving. However, this translates to not enough time being spent developing the relationships between the characters so that the audience can grow with them. Just about everyone in Angie’s circle seems to take an immediate liking to her, bonding seemingly instantly. These are valuable relationships in Angie’s arc, yet – as the story moves and those relationships start their payoffs – the audience doesn’t have enough to feel as invested as they should. Truly evocative moments happen – both painful and joyful – yet it’s difficult to feel any connection to them because the relationships are largely assumed instead of developed. This means that a lot of conversations serve expositional purposes instead of existing as natural moments between scenes.
While the narrative doesn’t connect as strongly as audiences may wish, the direction is strong, the ideas are executed well, and the cast is engaging to watch. Two major highlights come from American Gods’s Yetide Badaski bringing some wonderful humanity to Bree’s drug-addicted mother Anita and character actor Yuan who’s given a lovely monologue that offers the whole of MDMA perspective. Ultimately, for a debut film, Wang demonstrates incredible promise visually and that’s primarily where MDMA succeeds. It’s truly a shame that the narrative execution doesn’t pull together to create what’s a sincerely compelling story of a girl in crisis, desperate to shield herself from trauma’s past and present.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.