The traditional, All-American propagandist notion that college is “the best four years of your life” is starting to wither. Over the last decade, social media has exposed the university industrial-complex as a hatchery of debt, hazing, ineffectively regulated drug and underage alcohol consumption, and classism, which espouses zero-sum competitive behavior. Film is slowly starting to catch up to this dark truth, and Cardinal X — a film by first-time director Angie Wang — does a fiery job in moving cinema’s treatment of college life toward a more earnest direction.
The semi-autobiographical drama stars bright young actress Annie Q. (The Leftovers) as “Angie”, a lower-middle class, Chinese freshman from Newark who begins her first semester at Crocker University: a fictitious San Francisco school based on Stanford University. The time is 1984, ecstasy is emerging as America’s favorite party drug and the Reagan Administration is working overtime to widen the United States’ wealth gap.
Accordingly, Cardinal X obliterates any notion that elite University life is dominated by intellectual discourse and social consciousness. Replacing this flowery assumption is extreme class warfare between Angie and a coterie of privileged students who immediately lash cheap insults against her class background. The fast set-up places Angie in anti-hero terrain, and Cardinal X thoroughly follows through on Angie’s righteous reactivity.
Within a torrential ten-minute clip, Angie submerges herself into the all too accessible side of seedy college socialization. She chugs down hard liquor, drops ecstasy, outwits her caddie enemies, and hooks up with the party’s alpha stud. Through her consorting, Angie learns about the campus underground drug market. Soon after, she’s working at the Crocker lab, where she surreptitiously makes her own “e” supply.
Cardinal X generally does a nice job of mapping out Angie’s motivations. One reason for Angie’s breathless bender of hard drugs and loose encounters is her traumatic past, which is depicted tersely through sharp flashbacks. This technique economically provides specific information, even if it has done so with a slightly detracting jaggedness.
It’s ultimately Annie Q.’s expressive performance which makes Angie’s terrible past resonate. Even when Angie builds herself as a hard talking, club hopping kingpin of the California University ecstasy market, there’s a palpable vulnerability across her face, which conveys an economically disadvantaged, disorientated 18-year-old. A pallid, tear-ridden Angie riding on a quiet bus from Newark to Crocker U is one of the film’s best, and all too few, lived in moments.
Wang’s direction does at times play a nice hand in Cardinal X’s commentary on University life. The party atmospherics, blisteringly paced and brazenly lascivious, relentlessly highlight Angie as a product of her environment. With each extreme situation which rushes her way — be it a boozy frat party, or an obscene $9,500 yearly tuition ($24,000 today) — Angie rapidly records and then dismisses disgust before plunging into the cracks and trying to find a way to earn high social acclaim and money. How else is a working class outlier to thrive at an elite school she earned her way into, but clearly cannot afford? This dark question has not been addressed nearly enough in film, and Wang is to be commended for putting it up front in a tight, 90-minute package.
Having a female lead in an empowered, megalomaniac role is also refreshing. In other famous kingpin works such as Scarface or Breaking Bad, crime bosses are larger than life, angry alpha-males who devour their anti-heroic roles. The genre has been expanded to include women such as Mary-Louise Parker in Weeds, though Parker’s exploits were adorned with satirical humor and routinely surrounded by a cast of colorful male characters.
Cardinal X distinguishes itself by centering on a purely dramatic take of a female college student who thinks she must run an underground economy, as well as succumb to an exploitative party environment, to pay her way to graduation. In this regard, Angie’s kingpin role lacks Weeds’ satirical punch, but it is uniquely compelling in its somberness.
To mixed results, Cardinal X examines other elements of the college lifestyle. By far the best alternate story line belongs to Angie’s roommate Jeanine (Francesca Eastwood), whose razor-sharp party hopper visage thinly veils a chronically depressed college freshman on the verge of suicide, thanks to an overbearing, weight-shaming mother.
Jeanine (Francesca Eastwood) and Angie (Annie Q.)
Eastwood’s seamless emotional transitions between Jeanine’s two sides, best captured in a staggering mirror scene early in the film, deftly parallel Annie Q.’s own multi-layered performance. On a broader level, when the two actresses’ emotional chemistry is given room to breathe, Cardinal X reminds its audience that wealth and status disparity can be bridged by emotional openness and the will to question institutions.
At other times, Cardinal X hastily veers into alternate genres which dilute its unique, cutting character study. The club scenes are initially purposeful, but they soon devolve into gratuitous late night cable fare. The direction of these scenes does not help matters. Too often Wang insists on scurrilous close-up shots which, in addition to being visually disorienting, emphasize a litany of ultimately uninteresting side characters. It would have been more interesting to view Angie scampering through the party’s backrooms to set up her kingpin, thereby focusing on an indictment of certain aspects of college life while acutely studying Angie’s mind.
Instead, Wang sophomorically uses sappy melodrama as a device to capture Angela’s more wholesome side. In an alternate universe, Angie is friends with Tommy (Scott Takeda), a caricatural nerd and painfully obvious plot device. Some of their friendship works nicely ; there’s a relatively quiet family dinner where Angie finally lets her hair down and has warm exchanges over a hot meal. After 50-minutes of Angie’s high pressure scheming, the salutary dinner stands out as a singular reprieve other students have the luxury to take for granted. However, Cardinal X surrounds this organic scene with several minutes of tinny dialogue as to who Angie “really is” — an approach which is wildly inconsistent with the film’s otherwise stark tone.
What would have been more interesting would be to witness a more detailed layout of Angie’s machinations as she balanced her ecstasy business with excelling as a student at Crocker U.
One possible reason for this shortcoming could be because Wang — as she stated after Cardinal X’s showing at last week’s New York Independent Film Festival — worked with a small budget and 20 days of production time. Independent films routinely have to make trade-offs due to budgetary limitations; accordingly, one has to wonder what Cardinal X could have been if it had the capital to match its ambitious scope.
Still, Cardinal X is an engrossing film by a director who has a fresh, deeply felt perspective on an urgent subject matter. If Wang learns some lessons from her feature debut, and has the blessing of more production time for her next feature, we may enjoy the emergence of a much needed “X” factor on the United States’ independent film scene.