MDMA opens with a young, scantily clad woman snorting cocaine in a nightclub. How did she get there? The film soon takes us back to a year earlier, when Angie (Annie Q.), a bright but increasingly troubled college freshman, experienced culture shock as a working-class Asian girl from a broken home going to a California school filled with preppy white kids. Angie quickly discovers the joys of ecstasy, and almost immediately after starts synthesizing and dealing the drug. That might sound far-fetched, and the dramatic beats are closely aligned with a Lifetime movie’s, but the story is inspired by writer-director Angie Wang’s actual life.
While that story is worth sharing, as a director she relies too heavily on choppy exposition via abrupt flashbacks, and the screenplay is weighed down by cliché lines like, “I’m whoever you want me to be.” The proceedings take place in the 1980s, and there are some suitably fun oversized earrings and lace gloves on display. The soundtrack — featuring two non-“Relax” Frankie Goes to Hollywood songs, among other earworms of the era — also deserves a shoutout. Angie’s relationship with her wealthy, blonde roommate (Francesca Eastwood) adds moments of intimacy and sweetness (save for the inevitable druggy threesome scene) to a tale drenched in darkness. While MDMA might feel frustratingly familiar, at the same time it’s difficult to dismiss. It couldn’t have been easy for Wang to film a depiction of such a dark time in her life, and she does find fragments of garish visual interest. It’s a shame, then, that so much of the action essentially plays as a new-wave take on Go Ask Alice.