There’s an innate joy to be found watching someone find success outside of the rigid confines of the law, particularly in a political climate so ripe for rebellion. As it turns out, this also applies to acts that are retroactively illegal, as is the case with pushing ecstasy in 1984, the year before it was criminalized by the DEA and Nancy Reagan bombarded the nation with her “Just Say No” campaign. In a loosely fictionalized account of her unbelievably unbridled freshman year, first-time director Angie Wang’s MDMA explores a young woman’s drug-fueled entrepreneurial efforts to earn a degree at a private university.
It’s the mid-80s, and excess is in fashion. The hairdos are enormous, the outfits are gaudy, and working-class teen Angie (Annie Q.) is just trying to keep her head above water as she starts her first year at a prestigious Bay Area college. Soon, she loses her financial aid, and it isn’t long before she finds the solution to all of her problems in the form of little, purple pills. You see, Angie’s resourcefulness and her aptitude for chemistry allow her to manufacture the hot new drug on the market: Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA). Through a combination of natural ingenuity and blind luck, she quickly becomes one of the largest ecstasy distributors on the West Coast, disrupting her once ordinary life with the trials and triumphs that come coupled with being a drug lord.
As a woman of color who decided to try her hand at filmmaking in middle age, Angie Wang certainly brings an outsider voice to the world of cinema. But what truly makes her perspective unique is that she actually lived this story, or at least some less sensationalized version of it. Shockingly, she’s actually able to maintain an objective eye, even when retelling her own whirlwind narrative. Wang doesn’t attempt to garner any undeserved sympathy for her younger self or over-explain her erratic behavior. She simply lays out the facts (as best she can relay them) and affords the viewer the ability to pass judgment. Sure, she undoubtedly takes liberties, but they are for the sake of crafting a compelling tale, rather than to make herself some sort of unwavering heroine.
Perhaps because she has developed a firm grasp on her own inner workings over the years, Wang has constructed a rich, multifaceted character in her protagonist. The fictionalized Angie, in an inspired turn by Annie Q. (The Leftovers, Breathe In), may exist in a familiar narrative structure, but she is far from ordinary. She seems just as organic when she’s confidently putting a smug frat boy in his place as she does while charting out high-level equations. A lesser film would have a thoughtless and hurried transition from unassuming bookworm to morally reprehensible criminal, but MDMA boasts a hero whose journey is far too naturalistic to conform to a neat, linear transformation. From start to finish, she contains multitudes.
While her tale does lean heavily of clichés and tout all the sloppy markings of a directorial debut, at the heart of Angie Wang’s MDMA is a genuine truth, enough so to anchor an otherwise familiar story with intimate charisma. We are gifted an intricate character study, one with all the profound immediacy of a first-hand account. Wang is sifting through her recollection onscreen, poking and prodding and examining whether or not she made the right decisions. Even if the narrative leaves something to be desired, she has eloquently taken what could have easily been a tasteless exercise in self-adulation and crafted a detailed piece of authentic self-reflection.