Sunday, March 12, 2017

CAAMFest ’17: Cardinal X

Angie Wang was the Walter White of her 1980s Bay Area campus. When her financial aid suddenly stopped, she combined her chemistry know how and club kid social contacts to become a major manufacturer and distributor of MDMA. The good times will be fun while they last, but there will come a reckoning in Angie Wang’s Cardinal X (clip here), which screens during the 2017 CAAMFest in San Francisco and Oakland.

Wang grew up in Newark, so you can’t judge her too harshly. She had it especially difficult, thanks to her severe father and the erratic mother who bailed on them. Yet, through hard work and academic achievement, Wang earns admittance to a prestigious Northern California university that is absolutely, positively not Stanford. She is also awarded some financial aid, but it will not be enough.

Through her privileged party girl roommate Jeanine Rockwell, Wang gains entrée to all the campus frat parties, where she learns of the voracious demand for MDMA (ecstasy). When her grant money falls through, Wang rather enterprisingly sets herself up in the ecstasy business (which wasn’t even illegal at the time). However, the lure of easy money and the hard partying that go with it takes Wang to some dark places. Even Tommy, her chem lab buddy and the angel perched in her shoulder cannot prevent her hard fall from grace, but unlike the Breaking Bad protag, Wang might have a shot at redemption.

We can only hope Wang the director did not live the life of Wang the character, chapter and verse, but she is clearly drawing on sufficient personal experience to give Cardinal X the ring of authenticity completely lacking in thematically similar films, such as the laughable White Powder. You can tell some serious street cred went into the film. However, Annie Q’s performance as Wang never allows cynicism to set in. Thanks to her, we can always see the vulnerability Wang tries to hide beneath her tough-talking façade.

Cardinal X also showcases a side of action movie regular Ron Yuan that we do not often get to see. Honestly, he is just terrific as Wang’s father Michael, a hardworking cook, who is incapable of expressing his emotions (his big climatic scene is extraordinarily well written and well played). Francesca Eastwood brings greater depth and dimension to Wang’s hot mess roommate than you would ever find in an average college melodrama, while Scott Keiji Takeda is winningly geeky as poor old Tommy. Arguably, the subplot involving the distressed inner city school girl Wang counsels as part of the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program is way too on-the-nose, but Aalyrah Caldwell’s work as young Bree is still remarkably assured.

Despite the somewhat lurid subject matter, Wang’s gritty execution and the quality of her cast make it a serious indie drama rather than a guilty camp pleasure. When it is over, viewers will feel like they have been through a lot with Wang, which is impressive. To her further credit, she also totally nails the Eighties vibe. Recommended as both nostalgic and cautionary viewing, Cardinal X screens again this coming Saturday (3/18), as part of CAAMFest.