If you’ve been a longtime reader of this site, then Hisonni Johnson‘s name may ring a bell or two. We’ve been following the multi-hyphenate’s filmmaking career for some time, from the fandom-focused Grayson: Earth One back in 2013 up until now. And on this day, we’re bringing his new film Take Out Girl to your attention ahead of its world premiere this weekend at the Cinequest Film & Creativity Festival, which kicks off today.
From director/co-writer Johnson, who wrote the film with star Hedy Wong, comes a tale of the American Dream as it often is in reality, not how it’s supposed to be in an ideal world. Wong stars as Tera, a young woman who runs deliveries for her hard-working mother’s Chinese restaurant in and around the rough edges of L.A. neighborhoods. Tera’s also got a temporary side hustle selling exam notes and test prep materials to all the rich “Beckys” at her former college. When a dangerous encounter leads to a more lucrative opportunity, Tera risks it all to pull her family into a higher social class through strength of will alone, with surprising but ultimately inevitable consequences.
There’s a lot that Take Out Girl has going for it: Its cast is comprised mainly of people of color, including rapper $tupid Young in his acting debut (his hit song “Mando” is also the title track), as is the crew behind the scenes. This not only brings underrepresented faces and personalities to the big screen, but also an air of authenticity to the story that plays out. This ain’t Crazy Rich Asians by any means. It’s closer to the early Ryan Coogler effort Fruitvale Station, with a little bit of Hustlers energy, and a dash of the character-focused storytelling arc of Breaking Bad. The story of Take Out Girl also exists on the periphery of dramas we’re used to seeing; it shies away from the lights of the big city and opts for darkened alleys, side streets, and slum neighborhoods no “Becky” would be foolish enough to visit. Tera, however, is tough-as-nails, street-smart, and ambitious, so much so that her dream of providing for her family by any means necessary often overrides her own instincts of self-preservation. While that approach works like gangbusters for Tera early on, in the long run, it only complicates things further.
Tera’s family is a familiar yet complicated mix of characters. Hard-working mom Wavy (Lynna Lee) and cousin Crystal (Mier Chasin) quite literally work themselves to exhaustion at the restaurant while brother Saren (Lorin Ly) has his own dangerous side-hustle on the streets, one he’s been a part of for years without much to show for it. So when Tera happens to deliver an order to a crime family led by the charismatic Lalo (Ski Carr), she finds her own opportunity through offering to act as an under-the-radar drug distributor for a 10% cut of the profits. (A side note here to call out the solid, reliable character work of J. Teddy Garces who’s long been featured in Johnson’s titles.) That plan works to the benefit of all … for a while. Ultimately, you might think you know where this story is headed, but Johnson and Wong throw in a few curveballs from family, friends, and loved ones alike that will keep you guessing, right up until the end.
Take Out Girl does suffer from some indie movie growing pains. At 100 minutes, it’s got some fat that could be trimmed away to make a leaner, meaner, better-paced cut; simple scenes where the camera lingers for too long abound, and conversations occasionally drag a bit too long. The edit feels too precious more often than not, but there’s a solid, core story with emotionally charged and resonant performances underneath it. The raw talent of all involved shines through.
Ultimately, Take Out Girl is a gritty story of the real American Dream, one that sloughs off the old, dead adage that hard work, sacrifice, and risk-taking alone is enough to better your station. Instead, it looks at the hard truth, that it’s nearly impossible to pull yourself up through the ranks of a system that’s designed to benefit the few at the top on the backs of the many working beneath them. To pull off that feat within one’s own lifetime, you’ll have to work outside that system. That’s exactly what Tera does, and you get the sense that it’s something her family members have done, too. Can she be the one who actually achieves the American Dream? Or is she destined to follow in the footsteps of everyone who’s tried–and failed–to buck an unfair system? You’ll have to watch to find out!
Take Out Girl makes its world premiere at Cinequest this Saturday, March 7th.