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Shout Factory // Unrated // November 13, 2018
List Price: $16.96 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted January 9, 2019 | E-mail the Author
In the year 1984, MDMA (aka "ecstasy") was not yet on the US's list of illegal controlled substances. Any would-be drug dealer, with a bit of science know-how and the tools to do the work, could whip up a manufacturing operation in their own garage. MDMA the movie follows college student Angie Wang (Annie Q), who quickly realizes that her single dad (Ron Yuan) isn't going to make enough to cover her West Coast tuition working at a Chinese restaurant. After sleeping with a charismatic frat boy (Pierson Fode) who offers her a hit, she decides to sign up for the school's science lab and start manufacturing the drug in her free time in order to pay for classes. Although she hits the jackpot, she struggles to juggle her booming business, her friendship with troubled roommate Jeanine (Francesca Eastwood) and earnest classmate Tommy (Scott Keiji Takeda), and the needs of her Little Sister Bree (Aalyrah Caldwell), whose drug-addicted mother (Yetide Badaki) bring up painful memories of Angie's own traumatic childhood.

MDMA has so much on its plate: Writer/director Angie Wang adapted and fictionalized her own story selling MDMA in college for this, her debut feature. The resulting film is an uneven but largely impressive blend of personal storytelling from a feminine POV with a scope that rests outside of Wang's current ability and the means of the film's low budget. Too much focus on the flaws on the surface would overlook how many of the boxes Wang successfully ticks, with the film's biggest problem area being something that doesn't seem as if it were on her radar at all.

First and foremost, Wang has a great gift (as arrogant as it may sound) in herself as the basis for the story. The Angie Wang of the film, performed with prickly perfection by Annie Q, is a wry, sharp-witted, self-confident character that pops off the screen, embodying a culturally-specific, contradictory blend of assertiveness and repression. She's the kind of woman who has no qualms about telling Fode's Alex to "learn to eat pussy" after an unimpressive hook-up and demanding half of his $20 payout on a bet with a roommate that he'd get laid, while also bottling up and compartmentalizing more serious pain and battles with self-worth. Even when there's a sense that Wang might realize a scene somewhat differently with more time and more money, she and Q construct, from truth and talent, a fully-realized and multi-faceted character who is always interesting to watch.

Angie and Jeanine's friendship also feels real, in a way that the movies have often ignored. Although Jeanine's troubled relationship with her mother is familiar stuff, there's an edginess to Angie and Jeanine's adventures that might've been sawed off or softened in some previous era. Instead, MDMA is another example of a female filmmaker who is happy to let young women be wild, obnoxious, or "unlikable" on-screen. At one point, the two women have a threesome with a college boy, and the experience is essentially a bonding exercise. It helps that Jeanine is, like Angie, a complete character that Wang has time for and respects, and that Eastwood is as good as Q in helping to craft that character. The antagonism between Jeanine and her mother, Mary (Elisa Donovan) also ties nicely into Angie's past, supporting both the film's larger themes as well as Jeanine's character development. Early scenes with Badaki's Anita can feel a bit like lower class tourism, but Wang offers a later scene that helps to ease that tension.

Although Wang has a strong handle on emotional storytelling and character, her visuals are largely flat. The film's compositions and the look of the cinematography are so basic that the period setting rarely registers, with a soundtrack of '80s tunes doing most of the work. The biggest issue, however, is that the film's presentation as a potentially true story inadvertently opens up a moral or ethical can of worms. In a pivotal scene, Angie's behavior finally comes back to haunt her, in a way where the responsibility rests firmly and solely on her shoulders, and one which has permanent consequences. Even assuming this is one of the moments that Wang made up entirely, there's a queasiness in watching the scene and those that follow play out as an opportunity for Angie to heal and grow as a person, a feeling that only increases when a climactic scene between Angie and her father seems to build to a message that explicitly absolves her along the very lines that make this section uncomfortable. There is no doubt that both the real and fictional Angie Wangs are reckoning with their behavior through MDMA, but the approach to that guilt feels biased when the forgiveness in question would need to come from someone else -- and doubly so if the scene has any basis in reality.

The Blu-ray
For its theatrical release, MDMA was granted slick, multicolored poster artwork that reflects the neon lights of the big city, as well as representing the rollercoaster ride of the drug itself, in the abstract. It's probably a photomanipulation, but there are some effects on it that make it seem like it could've been painted. The same artwork is used for the Blu-ray. The one-disc release comes in one of the new thicker Viva Elite Blu-ray cases, and there is no insert.

The Video and Audio
Shout! offers MDMA with 2.39:1 1080p AVC and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 specs. The film looks good, even if its budgetary constraints sometimes show and the digital photography occasionally takes away from the sensation that the film takes place in the 1980s. Colors are vivid, especially when it comes to some of the more elaborate costuming, and fine detail is excellent, with the photography consistently offering depth and dimension. Sound is relatively immersive, although again, the budget occasionally shows -- only the opening club sequence that serves as sort of a bookend really gives the mix much of a workout with dialogue driving most of the scenes and the film's soundtrack of '80s hits rendered nicely. A DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track is also included, as well as English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing.

The Extras
At a glance, it looks like MDMA has a pretty stacked release, but digging into the actual content is, sadly, underwhelming. First up, there is an audio commentary by writer/director/producer Angie Wang. Wang seems uncomfortable with the idea of recording a commentary and sometimes struggles to come up with things to talk about during the track (even admitting she doesn't know what she's doing at one point), offering the occasional anecdote interspersed with long gaps of silence. It's a little surprising she doesn't talk about the process of writing the script, adapted from her own experiences, but perhaps there were legal issues with that.

The video features that follow, sadly, aren't much of an improvement, only scratching the surface. "Angie Wang: Working With Annie Q" (2:40), "Francesca Eastwood: Working With Angie Wang" (1:39), "Authentic '80s: Hair, Makeup, and Wardrobe" (1:02), "Big Man on Campus: Choreographing a Kiss" (1:28), and "MDMA L.A. Premiere" (1:11) don't even run a total of ten minutes altogether, offering brief on-set interview footage and glimpses at B-roll. Once again, Wang doesn't get into the details of how the script was adapted from her real-life experiences, which is surprising. Also disappointing: the last of the featurettes shows a glimpse of a Q&A, but the Q&A itself is not included, and Wang mentions deleted scenes on the commentary that are not on the disc.

An original theatrical trailer for MDMA is also included.

MDMA is a promising debut feature. Although Wang struggles with budgetary issues and some of the film's messaging is muddled, the movie is an impressive character and performance piece thanks to the material she has to work with and her talented cast. Shout's Blu-ray impresses on a technical level, but the extras are a disappointment. Recommended.

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