Tera keeps her black cap pulled down over her eyes and keeps those eyes in a permanent glower.
The hat is armor, her posture sullen, defensive. You grow up Chinese and female in South Central Los Angeles, it comes naturally.
She’s in school, studying business, when we meet her. But her side hustles tell us that she’s out of these kids’ league, a 21 year-old who’d already an MBA — matriculating bad ass.
She can tell the family business — her mom’s Chinese restaurant — is a dead end. Her broken down mother knows it, too. It takes her cousin to articulate it.
“This neighborhood don’t do anything but keep you where you’re at.”
But that one delivery to a back-room drug “lab” will change the arc of Tera’s career and her family’s fortunes.
“Take Out Girl” is a gritty, promising but somewhat flat-footed first feature from cinematographer (“Prodigy”) turned director Hisonni Johnson.
It has a feel for its setting — the cultures thrown together, inter-marrying, absorbing from each other — the street argot that hints at African American, Latino, Chinese, Korean, Filipino as a first-gen melting pot. And it has a compelling leading lady. Hedy Wong, who co-wrote the sometimes-melodramatic script, seems too streetwise, fearless and tough to be 21. This world, it is suggested, made her that way.
She can look this drug dealer, Lalo (Ski Carr, spot-on) –hulking menace and gold grill masked by a hint of Latino gentility — square in the eye and give him the business consultant’s rap about his “problem.”
“No disrespect, but your people? They’re not really functional. They noisy.” As in, they’re sloppy and unmotivated. And their scowls, stubble, tattoos and chains make them walking drug world stereotypes to the cops.
Somebody like her, “Little Asian Girl” making Chinese food deliveries? They’d never give her a second thought. What’s your name, Chinese girl?
“Call me what you call me.”
“Take Out Girl” it is.
The family’s in hock, and Tera’s school hustles aren’t fixing that. But Tera’s supposed to be “the brains” in her family, with her short-tempered brother Saren (Lorin Alond Ly) the one most likely to get mixed up dealing drugs, hanging with gangsters. Which he is.
Tera is the one who takes things to the next level.
Lynna Yee sympathetically plays their mother, crippled by back pain from a lifetime of single-mom labor in a restaurant she is afraid to close, even for a few hours, just to get a break. Dijon Talton plays Nate, the custodian/handyman at their strip shopping center, the one sweet on Tera.
And veteran screen heavy J. Teddy Garces is Hector, aide de camp to Lalo, the one “watching” their unnamed new delivery queen because — as the cliche goes, “I don’t trust you.”
The film’s leisurely opening sets up Tera as a smart cookie, Saren as a hothead and Mom as a martyr to her kids and her business. Learning her new business is handled with some sharply cut montages, set to drug dealing hop hop.
Too little is done with Tera’s business acumen, there’s no spark to the would-be romance and too many one-on-one scenes play as static as still-lifes. Characters strike a pose, take a beat and ask for a date or make an introduction by insisting you “Check out the white shoes. White shoes!” or share some confidence.
These scenes slow down the early acts.
Odd moments of drug dealer generosity and “little Chinese girl” bravery ring false. All these violent people with guns and she never flinches? Several shifts in tone and the nature of Tera’s work seem abrupt, and the third act’s twists are pure melodrama.
But the milieu, similar to 2017’s “Gook” with far more conventional plot complications, is a winner and Wong is utterly convincing as a clever hood rat, if not quite as convincing as a coed. Suspense isn’t maintained throughout, but several scenes manage a wonderful tension.
That adds up to an indie thriller with promise, if not quite the pace and polish it needs to deliver the drama, excitement and heartbreak.
MPAA Rating: unrated, bloody violence, drug content, profanity
Cast: Hedy Wong, Ski Carr, Lynna Yee, Lorin Alond Ly, Dijon Talton
Credits: Directed by Hisonni Johnson, script by Hedy Wong and Hisonni Johnson. A The Label release.
Running time: 1:39