Director: Sean Baker
Primary Cast: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karren Karagulian, Mickey O’Hagan, James Ransone
US Release Date: 10 July 2015
Sin-Dee (Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Taylor) are both sex workers on the streets of LA. After 28 days in jail, Sin-Dee is released on Christmas Eve, and she celebrates her newfound freedom by sharing a donut with her friend. As the two converse and catch up, Alexandra reveals that Sin-Dee’s pimp boyfriend, Chester (Ransome), has been cheating on her with an unidentified white girl (O’Hagan). Infuriated by this betrayal, Sin-Dee storms from the donut shop determined to get revenge. Meanwhile, Alexandra is scheduled to sing at a club that night and wants nothing to do with her friend’s drama.
For the most part, Sean Baker’s Tangerine—which premiered at Sundance last January—has been met with widespread critical acclaim; now that I’ve watched this low-budget comedy myself, it’s not difficult at all for me to see why this is the case. Like the women at its heart, Tangerine makes the most of what it has at its disposal, and the results are beautiful and beautifully ugly all at once. As simple and as unassuming as it is daring and unconventional, Tangerine is a thoroughly enjoyable film that is characterized by a captivating combination of raw energy and sincere heart.
Much has been made of the fact that Tangerine was shot entirely on the iPhone 5s, but that is hardly all that sets it apart from other films; as impressive, as distinct, and even as unpretentious as some of Tangerine’s visuals are, the technology behind the film is but one example of the self-confidence and creative daring that define it.
Above all, Tangerine is wholly itself, even when that means being too bright, too loud, or too much for those who may prefer more refinement and subtlety. And yet, as feisty and as independently-minded as the film is, its emotional aims are relatively simple in the end. For underneath its bold and somewhat unorthodox exterior, Tangerine is really just a touching comedy about two friends who are both trying their hardest to make it in a world where effort isn’t always enough.
Most of the Tangerine’s cast are relative newcomers, but their performances are just what this stylistically brash and surprisingly tender films calls for. The film’s two leads, Rodriguez and Taylor, both play trans sex workers and though neither has much acting experience, they both deliver performances that feel genuine and that leap from the screen. And even in instances where some of the film’s cast might run the risk of veering into over-the-top territory, Baker’s comedic script more than saves them.
From a representational and narrative standpoint, one of the most important things about Tangerine is that it features two trans actresses who play transwomen in a film that isn’t really about what it means to be transgender. In Tangerine, being transgender (or a sex worker) is not a costume to be put on or a spectacle to be gawked at, and Baker’s choice not to cast cismen in wigs as his leading characters helps to ensure that this is the case. Transwomen are transwomen, not men in makeup, and hopefully, Tangerine’s success will inspire more filmmakers to cast trans roles accordingly. Tangerine isn’t interested in Sin-Dee and Alexandra because they are trans either, but because they are people with stories and feelings worth paying attention to. Tangerine’s main characters are trans women, but the film isn’t about their transition or sexuality; similarly, the film doesn’t feature a single sex scene even though its protagonists are both sex workers. Ultimately, Baker has too much respect for his story, his cast, and his audience to present a more judgmental film or to waste time exploiting his characters by trying to explain and prove their humanity; and his film is all the more moving and successful because of it.
Tangerine is also notable for its depiction of LA. Like most, I’ve seen plenty of movies set in LA, but few films have brought the city to life for me as forcefully as this one. The way that the film is shot places viewers on the same streets that Sin-Dee and Alexandra work every day, and those streets are filled with people, struggles, and stories that reach far beyond anything that the film depicts directly. Tangerine also features a number of particularly vibrant images, which serve to more strongly imprint its pictures upon the minds of viewers.
With Tangerine, Baker presents a winning combination of humor and pathos, and his dizzying, but heart-warming friendship dramedy is sure to leave many eager to see what he does next.
Watch Tangerine on Amazon.
Until Next Time
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