Eye For Film >> Movies >> Cardinal X (2016) Film Review
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
Governments are always proud when they get to announce that more young people from deprived backgrounds are now attending university. What rarely gets acknowledged is how hard it is. Beyond the cost of fees, books and day-to-day survival, financially disadvantaged students often find themselves surrounded by people with completely unrealistic ideas of how they can live, expecting them to splash out on joining societies, taking professors to lunch, attending networking events and self-funding summer internships. Simply keeping up with middle class friends' social activities can led to crippling debt. As a new student at a prestigious college, Angie (Annie Q) faces intense pressures of this sort, combined with the fact she's the only Asian American around and is obliquely seen as representing her race. Getting A-grades whilst struggling to stay financially afloat is not easy, but Angie is nothing if not ingenious.
Cardinal X is loosely based on events from writer/director Angie Wang's own life, and it has that ring of truth about it that's rare in films on this kind of subject, despite some clichéd scenes. Drug dealing as a means of getting through further education isn't as rare a some people might think, but Angie goes a little further than just selling a bit if cannabis to her friends. Combining her skills as a chemist with a toughness that's rare in the privileged circles she now inhabits, she becomes the biggest dealer of ecstasy on the US West Coast. It's a success that empowers her to live life on her own terms, drinking champagne every night, having her pick of lovers and finding time to help a small child (Aalyrah Caldwell) who's struggling with problems that remind her of her past. Yet at the the same time, she's working to the point of exhaustion and her friends can never persuade her to open up about the traumas that drive her.
There's no doubt that this is an impressive debut but it relies a little too heavily on an established cinematic language constructed around drugs, parties and sudden wealth (the plus side of this is, of course, a stonking soundtrack). It's also too sentimental in its depiction of Angie's visits to the local ghetto, diminishing their impact, though it delivers some important home truths about the real challenges facing at-risk children, and there's a strong turn from Yetide Badaki which helps bring things back on course. Despite its problems, this episodic film hangs together well and occasionally upsets the expected order of events in a way that suggests that when Wang becomes confident in her voice as a filmmaker she'll go far.
Perhaps the best feature of this film is its focus on character. Angie's relationship with best friend Jeanine (Francesca Eastwood) is beautifully developed and the revelation that rich girls have problems too feels real rather than hackneyed. The theme of toxic mothers, counterpointed by another friend's naive suggestion that Angie would be happier if she just dropped all that anger, comes through strongly. Meanwhile, the most thinly drawn main character, nice boy Tommy, is portrayed with delicacy and skill by Scott Keiji Takeda, providing moments of tenderness that balance the hectic pace of much of the story.
Cardinal X is refreshingly honest about the drug economy and the many levels at which it provides employment and a means of survival, without hiding the way that some drugs contribute to ruining lives. Some will find the distressing moments recalled in flashback too heavy handed, and the film is a tough watch in places, but it would be difficult to contrast these very different US lifestyles without such difficulties. Wang is to be congratulated for taking on a tough subject and exploring it with honesty and verve.Reviewed on: 15 Mar 2017