In the pulsing and oversaturated streets of Low Bottoms, Los Angeles, Tera (co-writer Hedy Wong) delivers takeout for her mother’s (Lynna Yee) floundering Chinese restaurant. Everyone in her family, including erratic brother Saren (Lorin Alond Ly), seems financially trapped within this neighborhood, unwillingly forcing them into both crime and violence. Desperate to take care of her family — especially her injured mother — the whip-smart Tera convinces local drug kingpin Lalo (Ski Carr) to employ her, moving his product via Chinese takeout bags and boxes. This opportunity, no matter how illegal, grants Tera the chance to change her family’s life, to keep them from scraping by and give them their own chance for opportunity and success. These are not choices, but necessities.
A first and second-time feature for most of the creatives, Take Out Girl is a passion project built from a virtually non-existent budget out of plain determination. It’s a feat that exemplifies the value of strong collaboration and shared endeavors among friends that such passion projects often carry, and the effects are so exciting to witness. The narrative itself has been lifted from actual events in Wong’s life, with the script being written and produced by a diverse group of content creators, whose enthusiasm for the project has been visibly infused within every shot.
Stylistically, the film is slightly waterlogged in color — though in a way that feels more elementary than premeditated. While oversaturation can work effectively, it can often also emphasize inexperience which, unfortunately, is the case in Take-Out Girl. The storyline is concretely the film’s strongest point, keeping everything else engaging in spite of several distracting cinematographic and production design-related choices. The hip-hop-infused narrative foams over in its messy emotions and tense class conflict — deconstructing how cycles of crime and illegality become unavoidable by pure circumstance. People become desperately wrapped-up to change their position, and in a matter of necessity, they turn towards those who can provide most for them and, for Tera, this figure is the drug kingpin. Both drama and tragedy, the crashing climax smashes these such messages home.
The performances here are mostly convincing, with the dynamic between Wong’s spirited Tera and Carr’s unnerving Lalo furnishing the film with some of its most interesting scenes. Yee’s portrayal of Tera’s struggling mother is also notable in its emotional depth and heart, as she provides the foundation for both plot and the wider film itself. Many of the characters could surely have been given more material to work with and, for a character-driven drama in this mold, Take Out Girl could use a bit more of a focused lens on its character-building.
Though certainly flawed, the film is compelling in its otherwise clear intentions and pulsating energy. Filmmaking is a constant process of growth, and it is refreshing to see new voices filled with such conviction and dedication — it will be interesting to track the future of those involved and see where their projects wind up.
Take Out Girl will premiere in March at Cinequest 2020 in San Jose, California.