A Film a Week - Take Out Girl

 previously published on Asian Movie Pulse

Hisonni Johnson (also known as Hisonni Mustafa) is best known for his camera- and directorial work on music- and superhero fan videos, as well as on television has a new feature indie film under his belt. “Take Out Girl” has premiered at this years edition of Cinequest Film Festival and is reaping awards at minor festivals across the US ever since. We had the chance to see it at CAAMFEST Forward aimed at Asian-American cinema.

The titular character is Tera, played by Johnson’s co-screenwriter Hedy Wong. We meet her in the midst of her acting on her abrupt decision to drop out of college in order to help her ailing mother Wavy (Lynna Yee) with the work in their Chinese takeaway. We learn that Tera is whip-smart, business-oriented and that she takes no bullsh*t from anyone. The business is family-owned, together with Tera, her brother Saren (Lorin Alond Ly) and cousin Crystal (Mier Chasin) also work there.

The business is failing, but Tera has an innovative idea: to use her “invisibility” as a young Asian delivery girl in order to deliver the drugs pushed by the Latino gang lead by Lalo (Ski Carr). There is a lot of logic in that idea (she would mostly be ignored by the police, especially if the package is comfortably wrapped inside a bag with the logo), and the success seems inevitable. On the other hand, she might quickly find herself way over her head for doing the risky business with the violent people. Could that have the repercussions for her family and her new love interest Nate (Dijon Talton), a kind black man who works as a janitor in the area?

Johnson and Wong get some of the aspects quite right in their screenplay, especially when it comes to depicting the multi-cultural milieu of Los Angeles and the hardships that both the first- and second generation immigrants have to endure in their life since they never had a proper shot at the American dream. The family and the intrapersonal relationships are also nailed by the screenwriting duo, while Hedy Wong is more than capable to channel the energy of a smart and strong young woman willing to fight and hustle in order to provide a better life for her family that is largely ignored by the society.

The other characters, however, usually suffer from under-development, so the lesser-known actors that are quite good at melting with the background of a daily Los Angeles murmur cannot actually shine. Lynna Yee is a noble exception as the single mother operating the honest business that has to face with the old age and the years of hard work taking their toll. While Lalo is relegated to a gang-banger stereotype, the others both from cohort and from Tera’s surroundings are quite one-dimensional as characters.

Another problem is the pacing of the plot, where Johnson, assuming the multiple roles in the crew (apart from being the director and one of the screenwriters, he also dealt with the cinematography and editing, while also being the producer of the film), seemingly tried to elongate the material which would be perfectly appropriate for a killer short to the feature format. There is a slight feeling of repetition and redundancy dramaturgy-wise, while the shoestring budget becomes apparent in the more demanding action scenes, especially on the special effects level. Other than that, Johnson manages to pack the movie in the aesthetics that slightly resembles that of a music video (quite expected), while the hip-hop infused soundtrack by James Van Boldt and Zaiaku certainly helps by dictating the rhythm and highlighting the diversity.

If not exactly smooth in melting the aspects of the family- and social drama with those of a genre film, “Take Out Girl” is very efficient in painting the detailed landscape of the things we are not able to see that often in both the mainstream and the independent cinema. It is an interesting, important movie that can be considered to be a noble effort.

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