Release: Friday, July 10, 2015 (limited)
Written by: Sean Baker; Chris Bergoch
Directed by: Sean Baker
How I felt when I first tucked into indie dramedy Tangerine — yes, that film, the one shot entirely on the iPhone 5s — and how I felt when the last scene faded to black couldn’t have been more radically different feelings. Talk about a film that earns your empathy.
Introducing itself to the world at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and creating substantial buzz in film festivals the world over before opening in an elite listing of American cinemas in July, Sean Baker’s fifth feature plays out with genuine emotion and manifests as an eye-opening day-in-the-life of two transgender sex workers on the streets of Los Angeles. Offering transgender actresses Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor their break-out roles, Tangerine swells with emotion thanks in large part to the pair’s naturalistic, amusing and occasionally heartbreaking performances — performances that suggest these are much more seasoned actors than they really are.
The story tells of Rodriguez’s Sin-Dee Rella, who learns the pimp she’s in love with has had an affair during the time she had recently spent in prison. Her best friend Alexandra (Taylor) breaks the news to her in the opening scene, setting the wheels in motion for the rest of the film by triggering a reaction within Sin-Dee that suggests a history of confrontational, violent behavior. Tangerine has no interest in dwelling in the past however; it beats a path forward on the sun-scorched, unforgiving streets of Tinseltown where people do what they must to get by.
It might seem surprising, counterintuitive even, for someone to have such a reaction when hearing one’s pimp has been seeing other women. After all, this is the kind of movie that has no qualms with describing flesh as product, where “the only thing that matters is the hustle;” in this gorgeously rendered production the world can be so cruel and ugly. That painful reality is also what makes the film so good. It takes some adjusting to, there is no doubt about that. And that, too, is a painful reality in and of itself: this is a scene largely overlooked in the industry.
Baker’s smart not to keep the focus entirely on Sin-Dee’s vendetta. Factoring into the equation is a subplot involving Alexandra trying to get people to attend a show she’s putting on at a night club later in the evening — it’s Christmas Eve — and an Armenian cabbie (Karren Karagulian) who frequents transgender prostitutes when on the clock, with a wife and child waiting for him back at home. Indeed, the cast may not be extensive but it’s enough to suggest a world filled with all sorts of broken people in various states of — well, I would say ‘decay,’ but that seems . . . harsh.
Tangerine develops in such a way that you’re constantly questioning whether a script was involved, or if real people were grabbed off the street and asked to contribute bit parts. It’s a hybrid of reality TV and independent cinema, bearing traits of the former in the way characters talk, behave and treat one another. There can be a lot of drama, and if we’re talking strictly narratively, Tangerine boils down to little more than relationship issues. But focusing on the machinations of the plot ignores the soft tissue of humanity that lies underneath wigs and layers of make-up.
These aren’t people we start off easily identifying with or even liking all that much. It’s almost irrelevant that the characters we are dealing with happen to be transgender, though the distinction should still be made. This isn’t yet another indie featuring the pains of adolescence as a white cisgender male. The trio of key players all share in common a lack of self-control that, coupled with their uniquely challenging professions, make them worthy of pity. They may not ask for it, but they’re going to get it anyway. And it’s not the worst thing to feel sorry for people who are less innately vile as they are products of their environments, and possibly products of terrible upbringings.
That was the last thing I expected to feel for Sin-Dee when all was said and done. I didn’t expect to find myself finishing the film. That’s because I also didn’t anticipate the screenplay to become so involving that it obliterated any sense that Baker’s decision to capture everything on an iPhone was nothing more than a gimmick. In this film, we feel like we could have stumbled into the frame at any given point, not realizing what was actually going on. That’s a really cool feeling.
Recommendation: I don’t know if you can call it a classic, but Tangerine is an all-too-unique film even in an era where a growing percentage of up-and-coming filmmakers are electing to take vastly different approaches to filmmaking and storytelling. It’s an important film as it deals with a number of socially relevant issues and features impressive performances from stars who are also far too rare in an industry that claims to be representative of a larger population. Tangerine is as good as any independent release I’ve seen and with any luck it’s a matter of time before more films like it start making the rounds.
Running Time: 88 mins.
Quoted: “You didn’t have to Chris Brown the bitch!”
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