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[Editor’s note: This review for MDMA was first published when the film was titled Cardinal X.]
As a first-time director who’s not a freshly minted film-school graduate, Angie Wang is a welcome rarity, not least because she’s segued to filmmaking in middle age. That outsider perspective is both a plus and a minus in Cardinal X, a semi-autobiographical drama that draws upon familiar, sometimes clichéd movie elements to tell a femme-centric, class-conscious story that hasn’t quite been told before.
The mostly true tale revolves around a resourceful collegian from a rough background who becomes a major player in the party-drug business of the early 1980s, soaring high until hitting bottom. In the performances of Annie Q. and Francesca Eastwood, a friendship between two damaged souls quietly resounds.
Annie Q. plays Angie, smart and ambitious, who arrives at the Bay Area campus of Crocker University, a fictional stand-in for Stanford, and is soon confronted with the stark reality of what an outlier she is — not because she’s Chinese-American, but because she’s working-class. Wang makes the day-to-day economics fully felt through well-chosen, underplayed details. Boarding the bus that will take her from Newark to the West Coast, Angie listens impatiently to her father’s money-saving instructions for a long-distance call. Once she’s settled in at school, she has to politely decline her privileged classmates’ invitations to go clothes shopping.
The pressures spike after Angie’s financial aid is cut, for reasons that aren’t clear; as in a few other parts of the drama, the writer-director skips past the opportunity to offer a key piece of information. But she leaves no doubt as to Angie’s quick calculations upon learning that there’s no local source for drug du jour MDMA, aka Ecstasy. With a hefty tuition bill looming and handy access to the necessary equipment as a chemistry lab assistant, she gets busy synthesizing the purple crystals, not yet a banned substance (in truth, the far-reaching underdog operation was a two-person venture). With the $25 capsules selling as fast as Angie can make them, she attracts the attention of a more entrenched distributor, leading to business clashes and, ultimately, dire collateral damage.
Until her fall from grace, Angie is mouthy and fearless and gives as good as she gets — she cuts self-satisfied frat boy Alex (Pierson Fode) down to size with fierce verbal dexterity. But Annie Q. also captures the vulnerable girl behind the tough exterior. Though their social backgrounds couldn’t be more different, Angie and her well-to-do roommate, Jeanine (Eastwood), both have crazy, hurtful mothers. Angie’s, long gone from the family, is glimpsed in well-deployed flashbacks, while Jeanine’s mean drunk of a mom (Elisa Donovan) is a borderline caricature, her every inebriated breath focused on shaming and insulting her daughter.
Eastwood (daughter of Clint Eastwood and Frances Fisher) more than holds the screen, making the pain beneath Jeanine’s party-hearty exuberance fully felt. The way she faces herself in the mirror, after a private bout of especially self-destructive behavior, and brings her strength and spirit back into focus is a remarkable moment.
But Wang doesn’t handle every aspect of Angie’s story with such subtle power. One subplot, which relates to the filmmaker’s work with underserved children and is clearly important to her, sentimentalizes Angie’s compassion as a Big Sister to Bree (Aalyrah Caldwell), a sweet girl growing up in extreme poverty and domestic dysfunction. That Angie sees herself in the child is evident, and doesn’t require the heavy-handed emphasis that Wang provides. But she takes the relationship into unexpected emotional territory with the sudden clarity of the girl’s mother (Yetide Badaki) and a simple gesture of forgiveness from Angie that speaks to her own situation as much as to Bree’s.
A certain overstatement also mars Angie’s friendship with the bashfully smitten Tommy (Scott Keiji Takeda), a fellow chemist whose wholesomeness sets him apart from everyone else in her college life. Yet while her anguished “I’m not for you” outburst plays like stale melodrama, Angie’s holiday visit with Tommy’s welcoming family, and her brief immersion in their Chinese traditions, offers a poignant contrast to her fractured upbringing. Her father, played by Ron Yuan in a compelling departure from his usual action-movie terrain, shares a deeply affecting memory when Angie most needs to hear it, revealing the soulfulness beneath a tight-lipped man’s usual gruff demeanor.
As good as most of the actors are, Wang and cinematographer Brett Pawlak lean way too hard on close-ups; given how crucial social and familial interactions are to the story, a more developed mise-en-scène would have served the material well. With its unfortunate use of slo-mo and an especially clichéd romantic moment in front of an aquarium tank, the film strains at times for cinematic effect. It’s Wang’s eye for social realities, brought to life by her cast, that gives her film its edge.
Production companies: Firehorse Productions, Blue Creek Pictures
Cast: Annie Q., Francesca Eastwood, Pierson Fode, Scott Keiji Takeda, Elisa Donovan, Noah Segan, Ron Yuan, Yetide Badaki, Aalyrah Caldwell, Devon Libran
Director-screenwriter: Angie Wang
Producers: Richard J. Bosner, Angie Wang
Executive producers: Cassian Elwes, Lawrence Braitman
Directors of photography: Brett Pawlak
Production designer: Rodrigo Cabral
Costume designer: Kit “Pistol” Scarbo
Editors: Robert Schafer, Jeff Castelluccio
Composer: Pei Pei Chung
Casting: Shana Landsburg, Nina Henninger
Venue: Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (Narrative Competition)
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