Overview: After twenty-eight days in prison, prostitute Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) blazes through Los Angeles after her cheating boyfriend Chester (James Ransome). Magnolia Pictures; 2015; Rated R; 88 Minutes.
“Merry Christmas Eve, Bitch”: This is the first line spoken in Tangerine. It might seem irreverent, but it sums up the tone of the movie; joyous, sentimental, and sincere, but not without bite. We follow the personal stories of three characters as they interweave on Christmas Eve, featuring trans-prostitutes and an Armenian cab driver Razmik (Karren Karagulkian). While Sin-Dee is on the warpath, Alexandra (Mya Taylor) tries to keep up, while trying her best to promote the performance she is giving at a nearby nightclub later that day. While Sin-Dee’s story is the driving force of the narrative, the supporting cast are given their own traits, nuances, and motivations, so that switching between perspectives doesn’t feel like a loss. It’s cleverly paced as to not outstay its welcome, nor move on without deriving emotion or flat-out entertainment from each situation presented. Razmik’s story is the most extreme, as it transitions from absurdist humour to shame and heartbreak. And the setting of Christmas Eve adds a melancholic edge to the proceedings, as the time of year for family and connection contrasts with the strange and sometimes tragic events that take place
Not Just A Gimmick: A lot of the buzz around Tangerine coming out of Sundance was focused on the fact that it was filmed exclusively on an iPhone 5s. Hoever, I should note that if I hadn’t been told so beforehand, I never would have guessed this to be true. The film looks great, even beautiful at times, visually accomplishing far more than might be expected from its $100,000 budget. And the device with which the movie was shot accounts for only one element of a make-shift production. Writer and Director Sean S. Baker wanted to make a movie about two people who meet at the small doughnut shop near his LA home. He knew the area was known for being a red-light district frequented by transgender sex workers, but didn’t have a story until he met his two leads. Alongside co-writer Chris Bergoch, he immersed himself in the culture and his familiarity and subject compassion is apparent in the loving detail seen in the finished film. They met Taylor outside a nearby LGBT Center, who knew some sex workers who were willing to talk. Some of the cast were found through Vine and Instagram. Most of the score was discovered on Soundcloud. Rodriguez’ real-life stories formed the script, and the charismatic actresses often went off-script to create some the finished production’s funniest moments.
A Girl Thing: Taylor’s Alexandra is tall, elegant, and well-respected in the neighbourhood and an upholder of order in this particular world. Rodriguez’ Sin-Dee is small, strong, quick-witted, and determined. She clutches her backpack as if with insecurity, yet marches on to her next goal with little remorse for who she insults along the way. She plays these opposing traits with nuance despite the loud and melodramatic nature of her character. While the script finds humour in everything from family disputes to outright brawls, Rodriguez brings a particular energy to every line, whether it induces tears of laughter or empathy.
Mickey O’Hagan plays Dinah, the girl Sin-Dee is looking for, and is completely dominated as she is literally dragged through the streets of West Hollywood by the scorned woman. She is weak and apprehensive, but is quick to mock those around her regardless of the position she’s in, which only serves to aggravate Sin-Dee further. Yet , in the ladies room of the club where Alexandra is due to perform, Sin-Dee reapplies make-up to Dinah’s pale cheeks without comment. It’s a sudden moment of tenderness between two people who have every reason to hate each other. The uneasy bond between the two may be fleeting, but it’s a theme that is revisited between the two leads. The only thing that derails Sin-Dee from her self-imposed mission is her promise to support Alexandra as she sings publically for the first time. As the film progresses, we find that the real stakes are whether their friendship can cope with their past mistakes and personal flaws.
Overall: While this is definitely a film specifically about the life of trans-women, with all of the attendant idiosyncrasies of their makeshift community on the corner of Santa Monica and Highland, it doesn’t dwell on the difficulties and prejudices they face for who they are. Tangerine is a personal story, full of sentiment and humour, that focuses on the solidarity that often comes from adversity. It’s a movie that manages to be riotously funny without ever sacrificing the realism necessary to ground these characters in the real world.
Editor’s Note 12/2: Updated for Content