Typically, when American creatives want to make movies, they move to Hollywood. Not so for first-generation Guyanese-American filmmaker Hisonni Johnson. After 13 years in LA, he relocated to Las Vegas to continue his career.
“I got to a point where I was writing a script about writing a script in Los Angeles, and I realized the past 13 years of my life has been nothing but work,” Johnson says. “I had no more stories to tell. When I came to Las Vegas, I immediately began refilling my story palette.”
The move worked. During Johnson’s four years in Southern Nevada, Las Vegas has been his muse, refuge and source of friends and collaborators. Mustafa describes the up-and-coming local scene as “incredibly talent dense.” Johnson tapped into that pool to make Take Out Girl, which debuted this past spring at the Cinequest Film Festival. Even though the story takes place in Southern California, viewers will enjoy spotting Las Vegas actors and locations, like the Historic Commercial Center District on Sahara Avenue.
The film follows the story of Tera Wong (played by Hedy Wong), who will do anything to help save her mother’s struggling Chinese food restaurant. The story begins with Tera dropping out of college—and ditching a side hustle in which she sold her tests and class notes to less-diligent students—to devote herself full time to the restaurant. But when a food delivery brings her into contact with a local drug-dealing operation, Tera sees (illicit) opportunity. Tera’s attempt to break the cycle of poverty puts everything at risk and drives the story toward a powerful conclusion.
Johnson says he relished Take Out Girl’s exploration of morality. He wanted the audience to fall in love with a protagonist who was a little “ambiguous ethically.” He wanted to challenge the assumption that “because a person has been arrested, pushed through the legal system, you know them as a criminal, a bad guy— there’s no excuses for what it is they did.” Having grown up in a tough situation himself, Johnson says, he sees a more nuanced reality and imbued Tera’s character with those complications. “If you root for her, then I could make you think about the way you perceive other people’s criminality and why they’re doing that,” he says.
The Take Out Girl story was inspired by the real-life experiences of both Johnson and Hedy Wong, and Johnson says the diversity of the film’s cast and crew is important to him. “The beautiful thing about this film is that an African American man and an Asian female could come together and seamlessly slap their life stories together,” Johnson says. There’s also a cameo by Cambodian American hip-hop artist $tupid Young.
Take Out Girl won the Best Cinematography award at the Ashland Independent Film Festival, and Johnson says the project has been selected to screen at eight film festivals thus far, though he isn’t permitted to release full details just yet. Stay tuned to the film’s social media pages—facebook.com/takeoutgirlfilm and instagram.com/takeoutgirlfeaturefilm—for updates. Interested viewers can watch the film at upcoming virtual film festivals or wait until 2021, when Johnson expects Take Out Girl to be available via video on demand.