There are many paths to success. Even one generation ago, that meant going to school, getting a job, and working there until retirement. On that path at that time, a single income was typically enough to provide for an average family totaling four. Today, however, the balance between hours worked and paid wages are tipped toward the business owner, so that employees almost always have to have a side hustle in order to survive on their own, let alone with an average family of four. Inspired by her own experiences in the San Francisco Bay-area, writer/actor Hedy Wong (Laff Mobb’s Laff Tracks) developed a story of a young woman whose academic aspirations went bust, making it harder to relieve her physically, emotionally, and financially over-extended mother of the pains working in their family restaurant creates. After developing it for years, Wong met director Hisonni Mustafa (Get a Job Dave) and the two collaborated to create Take Out Girl, a crime/family drama that’s as much a cautionary tale as it is an indictment of our current economic system. How can one “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” when everything around them wants them to stay down?
Tera Wong (Wong) is always on the move and on the grind. Even as she leaves college for the last time, she’s selling test answers, text books, and anything else that she knows she’ll no longer need when she goes back to work at her mother’s, Wavy’s (Lynna Yee) Sai Kung Restaurant, alongside her brother Saren (Lorin Alond Ly) and cousin Crystal (Mier Liu). Each of the kids do their part to lift Wavy’s burden in any way they can, but each new day brings another bill, another set-back. While out on a routine delivery, Tera accidentally steps into the path of drug dealer Lalo (Ski Carr) and seizes upon an opportunity to make some extra cash. Things are going well until the moment they’re not, at which point getting out may be the least of Tera’s concerns.
One must always possess a kind of stubborn optimism to make it each day. I’m not talking about just right now, but even before pandemics and semi-daily protests, the life of the average person is incredibly hard and growing harder by the day. Costs of living, costs of supplies, costs of business rise without any relief on the other side of the coin, creating a system which rewards those who already possess financial means and works against those without. Perhaps it’s the notion of the “American Dream” working against us, because most wake each day trying to do more than survive, they want to break free, and some are willing to do it by any means necessary. This last aspect is what makes the character of Tera so particularly fascinating, as brought to life by Wong, as rather than be a passive actor in her own story, Tera is entirely proactive. Before we even see Tera’s face, the script makes it clear that Tera doesn’t stop moving unless you give her the best reason to: to get paid. Even then, you’d better pay her what she’s owed or you run the risk of being left empty-handed as she suffers no fools. This may prickle some audiences looking to immediately connect with the central protagonist of a story, but it makes the slow removal of Tera’s emotional and psychological layers all the more rewarding. The peeling away is made even more enriching by Wong’s performance which is rock hard, almost stiff, with Lalo and his crew, yet bright and warm with her family. Hearing Wong speak in a Q&A with Indie Memphis programmer Kayla Myers, you get the sense that who Wong is and who Tera is are not too different from each other. This is likely why the character of Tera seems more authentic and less produced as Wong seems to seep in and out of frame.
But it’s not just Tera which makes Take Out Girl compelling, it’s the subtle world-building Wong and Mustafa incorporated so that Tera’s Los Angeles-area life didn’t feel like a singular story or, frankly, particularly extraordinary. Rather, through the juxtaposition of Saren, Wavy, Crystal, Lalo, and the rest of the periphery characters, the audience understands that Tera’s story didn’t begin once the camera rolled nor does the story end at the credits. What brings Tera to the choices she finds herself in are the result of everyone else’s colliding with one another, knowingly or unknowingly, until the inevitable happens. And for these characters, there really is only one way for the story to end and it’s to Wong and Mustafa’s credit that they take Take Out Girl there. That they commit to an ending that leaves the audience chilled, wondering if what they’ve seen is amplified drama for the sake of shock or purposeful commentary on the outcomes of the choices we make. From this reviewer’s perspective, it’s both: shock intended to wake the audience from expectation and to see, perhaps even understand, the only reality that results from choices of easy cash. It’s a bold risk, dropping the temperature as they do, but it solidifies the sense of authenticity and faithfulness of Wong’s experience which birthed the story to begin with.
What surprises most about Take Out Girl is the lack of condescension or pretense that runs throughout the film. At no point does Mustafa’s direction or their script seek to judge Tera for the choices she makes. Take Out Girl does present a line of mortality, a measure of conscience and the presence of redemption for those willing to seek it, but it does not glorify or push a narrative by any means. By being “hands-off” philosophically, Take Out Girl is able to explore notions of greed versus desperation, of the reward from hard work versus the faults of short cuts, and of the soul-shattering damage that the awareness of our choices brings. Kudos to Wong for exposing herself to us as she does and to Mustafa for bringing her story to life.
Screening at the 2020 Indie Memphis Film Festival.
Head to the official Indie Memphis Film Festival website to learn more about Take Out Girl.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.