Exhilarating and engrossing from start to finish, Tangerine is a true rose that embraces all its thorns.
Dirty, cheap, distasteful, shot on an iPhone and featuring two transgender women of colour as leads – in all honesty, this film shouldn’t work, after all there isn’t a straight white man anywhere near it. Yet somehow, Tangerine defies low expectation and soars higher than anyone could ever have imagined. Sure, with the word b*tch uttered every two seconds and sex being centre to which every character’s life revolves around, Tangerine wouldn’t be considered a fairy tale. However, Sean Baker (director) offers his audience a much needed murky window view into the neon-lit, grimy underbelly of Los Angeles, a world away from the glamour, million dollar homes and boundless oceans we’ve grown accustomed to seeing paraded on our screen by Hollywood. The title is misleading, because all you get from Tangerine is gritty, raw and hard as concrete realism.
When Alexandra (Mya Taylor) reveals to Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) that her pimp/boyfriend, Chester has not only been cheating on her, but doing so with a white (cis) woman or in their terminology a ‘white fish,’ Sin-Dee is beyond furious. The only thing going through her mind now, vengeance. Reason melts away in the LA heat, leaving Sin-Dee with one mission, find Chester, the white fish and make them answer for their betrayal. Despite Alexandra’s plea to second guess her actions, like a shark with a whiff of blood in the nostrils, Sin-Dee hurtles down street after street like a bat out of hell. The pair eventually part ways, when Alexandra finally refuses to continue being an accessory to Sin-Dee’s madness, deciding instead to focus on handing out leaflets advertising her performance later that night at a local club. Meanwhile on the other side of town, an Armenian taxi driver, Razmik (Karren Karagulian) picks up fair after fair during the scorching midday heat. Despite the temperatures, he is willing to make conversation and maintain a broad smile, but the customers seem more intent on vomiting, taking pictures and getting to where they’re going, rather than engage in small talk with the driver. Initially the two stories seem unconnected, but as the sun begins to shrink on the horizon Razmik gravitates to Alexandra and Sin-Dee, drawn in by his insatiable taste for transgender women, despite having a wife and kids at home.
As phenomenal as Tangerine is, it certainly isn’t without short comings. For instance, the opening scene seemed forced and jaded, really exposing Kitana’s limited acting experience and alluding to the small budget. Whilst also in the beginning, the music video style editing during Sin-Dee search for Chester, was disorientating, excessive and really drew attention to itself instead of purely complementing the action. And the rousing cinematic music during the same scene, ventured on the obnoxious at times and didn’t deliver the sense of scale and power Sean Baker was undoubtedly going for. But like any bird about to soar, it must first stand on the ground and sure, Tangerine might not have gotten off to the best of starts, but as the film progresses it certainly spreads its wings.
Sean Baker boldly explores what is essentially virgin territory for film. Sure, individually we’ve had films about prostitution, transgender women and people of colour, but never before have our screens been graced with all three at once. Why? Perhaps it’s the old Hollywood myth that white audiences won’t go to see films with POC as leads or conservative America can’t relate to stories about queer characters. All of which is quite honestly, nonsense. As different as we might seem on the surface, below it we’re hauntingly the same – we’re all just looking for someone to love and a chance at eternal happiness. And it seems that big money producers have forgotten that the audience possesses one of the greatest human qualities, empathy, which means while we might not be able to relate to the situations someone is going through, we can certainly relate to the emotions they are feeling. Isn’t that what cinema is really about, connecting emotionally with the characters on screen?
It’s impossible not to connect with Sin-Dee and Alexandra, because whilst they may some tough and strong on the surface, between the cracks in the façade, it’s plain to see the loneliness of being a marginalised minority within a marginalised minority and the struggle of trying to reflect on the outside what you believe to be true on the inside. But Tangerine isn’t entirely doom and gloom, there is plenty of comedic flair and while Sin-Dee is clearly not a professional actress, she compensates by bringing true gusto and verve to her performance. Karran also delivers a solid performance, but it’s Mya Taylor who delivers the most striking and emotionally resonating of them all. Mya’s stand out scene comes later in the film when she is performing a song in the night club. It’s obvious that it’s only when she is on stage, can her character Alexandra truly feel confident enough to be her true self, and because of this a comparison can certainly be drawn between her and Dorothy Vallens majestically singing Blue Velvet in David Lynch’s masterpiece.
Tangerine is a film not to be missed.