Offering a fresh take on to-go service, Take Out Girl is more than a film about food, but a film about the meaning of food as sustenance and negotiating a means of survival for the American Dream.
Co-writer and lead actress Hedy Wong stars as Tera Wong, a twenty-year old Chinese American girl who works at her family’s restaurant. What starts off as an emotional drama of a working-class immigrant family’s struggle to survive makes a sharp swerve into new territory when Tera decides to join a drug ring, delivering drugs disguised as Chinese food takeout, in order to sustain her family’s business. This narrative blend reflects the dualities of Tera’s character.
Despite the many close-ups of her face throughout the film, Tera doesn’t have much to reveal about herself, clenching the phrase “call me what you call me” between her teeth even in anxiety-inducing situations like a meeting with drug lord Lalo (played by Ski Carr). This mysterious edge is somewhat softened in the more sterile moments at the family restaurant. Tera expresses concern over her mother and their financial situation through anger, but even then this outward anger is merely a quiet mask for frustration and sadness.
Tera has street-smarts and a no-nonsense attitude that makes her the most memorable part of Take Out Girl. The viewer is introduced to the kind of girl Tera is at the start of the film. After a college class, Tera confronts Casey (played by Cole Bernstein), a privileged white girl who attempts to pay for Tera’s class notes, mindlessly flipping a stack of hundred-dollar bills before handing her a twenty-dollar bill. “This a game to you, ain’t it Becky?” Tera grits out. Casey protests, “I may have nice things, but I care about [college] just as much as you do.”
“Then why didn’t you take any notes?” Tera quips. Hedy Wong’s line delivery here is perfect, and it’s this kind of direct attitude that creates Tera’s character. Tera is a girl who’s familiar with hustling. Her sharp entrepreneurial spirit and keen business sense are grounded in more personal details, like her relationship with her ailing mother at their struggling restaurant. These tensions and the larger context of struggle motivates Tera’s actions throughout the film. It provides Tera’s journey delivering drugs in takeout containers with emotional resonance.
Beyond the narrative, there’s much to praise about the aesthetics of Take Out Girl; the realist style of the cinematography renders Los Angeles as Tera experiences it. The dark undertones of music accompanying the neighborhood contrasts with Tera’s comparatively lighter, muted dream for a restaurant in the suburbs. Throughout Tera’s interactions with the “customers” from her side business, there’s a hard edginess to her that makes Tera a complicated character, not necessarily the “heroine” of the story but instead the woman who makes the story happen whether she wants to or not.
At some points, the character-driven story feels a bit weak. Tera’s involvement in the drug ring, for example, comes after a speech about her invisibility and how it makes her a benefit to the ring. While the speech itself is one of the strongest pieces of writing in the script, it does feel abrupt, occurring twenty-something minutes into the film and during Tera’s second delivery. There’s a particularly heart-wrenching moment later on in the film when Tera can only listen to her mother sobbing behind the door as tears stream down her own face. The desperation the viewer feels in this scene might have a more powerful effect if it was portrayed as the catalyst for Tera’s decision to enter the drug business, instead of being placed after it.
There’s a mostly predictable climax towards the end of the film, as well as a shocking and abrupt discovery that could have had more build-up in the first three-quarters. Given the brief introduction to Tera as a business-savvy college student selling textbooks at the beginning of the film, one can’t help but want to see more about what Tera was like at college, particularly her experience as a low-income student outside of the restaurant. These small matters of narrative pacing, however, are largely overshadowed by director Hisonni Johnson’s attention to detail and storytelling.
Take Out Girl skillfully probes at what it means to exist as a racialized Asian body moving within and into certain spaces. It depicts a familiar story of immigrant hardship. However, it also treats working-class realities in a complex, humanizing manner, an affirmation that the American Dream isn’t always a glorious endeavor. Instead, it more often than not ends up failing to deliver.