Director Sean Baker (Starlet, Prince of Broadway, Take Out) was reportedly inspired to make Tangerine, after observing the customers of a donut shop in Hollywood’s red-light district. Tangerine’s stars are a pair of first-time actresses, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor. They play two trans sex workers – Sin-Dee, who’s just been released from a 28-day stint in prison for drug possession – and her best friend Alexandra who prepares for a gig singing at a local nightclub. The film follows the duo over the course of a day – opening on a donut shop which serves as one of the key locations where the two transitioning male-to-female call girls hang out. It’s the morning of Christmas Eve at the sketchy intersection of Santa Monica and Highland in Los Angeles and Alexandra and Sin-Dee are sharing a red-and-green sprinkled donut. It is there Alexandra informs, Sin-Dee that her pimp/boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) has been messing around while she was away. Adding insult to injury, Sin-Dee learns the girl Chester’s been sleeping with has a vagina. And so begins the vivacious screwball comedy of a West Hollywood neighborhood rarely seen on celluloid. After taking the final bite of the donut, Sean Baker allows the rambunctious leads to run wild through several seedy, crime-ridden city blocks and wreak havoc everywhere they go. As they pound the pavement they visit cheap restaurants, run-down strip malls, a seedy motel, a drag bar and a fast food restaurant, bringing them full circle to where it all began.
Tangerine has a couple of intertwined plot strands along with an episodic structure that recalls the work of Jim Jarmusch, specifically Night on Earth. A parallel storyline involving an Armenian cab driver named Razmik (Karren Karagulian) seems at first out of place. We follow Razmik as he drives around and picks up a diverse set of customers including a pair of semi-somnolent men who can’t hold their liquor and a recently heartbroken dog owner returning from a trip to the vet. But Razmik’s involvement eventually becomes clear and a climactic showdown with his family (including his mother-in-law, wife, and child) will leave you in stitches. At times crude and at times sweet, Tangerine capably balances comedy and drama as it documents the ugly side of the sex trade and drug culture. The film never loses sight of the risks, dangers and ugliness of its surroundings – one motel room sequence full of tricks and johns has a deep-seated dose of bleakness that might make your skin crawl – yet you’ll shriek as Sin-Dee storms in and drags Chester’s mistress, Dina (Mickey O’Hagan), out by her dirty bleached blond hair. Tangerine dives deep into the loneliness, pain and unhealthy habits of these sex workers, but is handled in a way that takes pride in who they are. That the tone shifts so drastically throughout, without ever feeling jarring, is a testament to the skill of the director. These people are the way they are, and Baker clearly loves them for who they are.Amidst the sex, drugs and exploitation is an old-fashioned tale of friendship – as punctuated in the film’s final moments, which show that the enduring love between Sin-Dee and Alexandra.
Baker has a neorealist bent for documenting his subjects and surroundings. Here his stars are indeed transgendered (MTF) – a sharp-tongued, cocksure duo who are never asked to act differently than how they would in real life. The fledgling actresses and real-life friends Taylor and Rodriguez provided significant input on Baker and Chris Bergoch’s screenplay, which drew upon experiences of several transgender prostitutes whom they befriended along the way. Both actors create a memorable partnership on screen, aided by improvisations and typical street slang. Their banter is sharp, profane and toxic (“God gave me a penis,” Sin-Dee says. “That’s pretty cruel, don’t you think?”). Here’s a film that opens with the words, “Merry Christmas Eve, bitch!” Rodriguez is naturally blessed with a gift for physical comedy. She’s fierce and brazen and a hopeless romantic as we discover when she and her pimp declare their love for each other. And I would be kicking myself if I didn’t mention the stellar performance by James Ransone’s Chester – a pimp with an unexpectedly romantic, albeit twisted liking for Sin-dee (dude’s got a tattoo of her name on his chest). Meanwhile, Mickey O’Hagan who lets you glimpse at the emptiness of Dina’s life pulls in a supporting performance worthy of awards. Everyone on cast shares such tremendous chemistry and never make any of their characters seem like caricatures but rather fully-formed human beings. But it’s Taylor who has the natural ability to let the mask drop and earns the film’s most poignant moments, particularly a scene where Alexandra finally gets to perform on stage. She’s enclosed in a tight red dress and softly croons to the lullaby “Toyland”. Only about five people are there to hear her sing, and Alexandria indeed had to pay her way to perform, but it doesn’t matter. Her desperate attempt at the holiday cheer shows how important self-expression is for these ladies, even if nobody’s watching. Meanwhile, a perfectly timed sequence of Alexandra and a regular client partaking in a transaction through a car wash will test the patience of most viewers as Baker allows the scene to unfold in real time. Watching these transgender ladies, immigrant cab drivers, beat cops, dirty pimps, fast food workers, and basically people who are struggling on the fringes of society –is a reinvigorating reminder of what makes us all human. This is what indie filmmaking should—be.
While the movie was produced by the Duplass brothers, Tangerine is a visual spectacle of independent cinema. There’s a touch of Harmony Korine here – much like Gummo, Tangerinethrives with strange beauty and like Spring Breakers, it features stunning images, hallucinatory camera work and aggressive sound and editing. Much of the attention for the movie has centered on its ridiculous low shooting budget. Working with d.p. Radium Cheung, Baker opted to shoot the entire film on an iPhone 5s equipped with brand-new anamorphic lens, a $7.99 high-def app, and a Steadicam rig allowing for a caught-on-the-fly feel that courses with the raw energy of cinema vérité. The movie constantly hops, circles, and glides down sidewalks, in and out of cars, buses, subway stations, fast food joint, motels, and bars. The distorted wide-angle close-ups recall David Lynch’s Inland Empire and the eclectic musical soundtrack that playfully mashes up classical with techno, hip-hop and Armenian folk taps into the throbbing pulse of the differing people living in and around the community. The meaning behind the title of the movie is never explicitly explained, but perhaps it was inspired by the sizzling and radiant orange sky that stretches over city blocks.
Over the years, transgender female representation in movies and television has been more-often-than-we-think celebrated, yet it has also been somewhat troublesome since despite the increasing availability of trans performers, trans people are frequently played by cisgender actors, and far too often by performers of the wrong gender. Tangerine not only stars transgender folk in transgender roles, but the film isn’t only about transgender issues. Tangerine is really a film about sex workers, that just so happens to follow a pair of MTF characters in and around West Hollywood. Tangerine has no interest in depicting these transgender characters as martyrs or victims – but rather as real people with real problems. They are complicated, fascinating, deeply flawed, vulnerable, insecure, selfish and outrageously funny. Tangerine ends on an unexpectedly poignant note which finds Alexandra and Sin-Dee alone in a Laundromat at the end of a long night. It’s a moment of genuine emotion that feels earned – a moment that anyone can relate to – a moment that challenges true friendship and the yearning we all have to find some good in the world. Unlike most LGBT films that follow transgender characters, Tangerine isn’t a depressing tale of discrimination, death, AIDS, heartbreak, murder, abuse or addiction. Tangerine has the spirit of John Waters; it’s proud to be unique but more importantly, amidst the social commentary, it’s not afraid to have fun.
We need more films like Tangerine!
– Ricky D