Editor’s Notes: Presented by Trans*Pride Toronto, Tangerine opens in Toronto on July 10th at Carlton Cinema.
In any other movie about transgender sex workers searching for revenge on the streets of Los Angeles, our way into this world would likely be Razmik (Karren Karagulian), the Armenian cab driver who occasionally drives into the world of Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) for an escape. We might learn about his efforts to hide this part of his life from his wife and young daughter and later observe as he reconciles his desires and those around him who have traveled to a foreign country with.
The handheld nature of the phone/camera perhaps gives the film its greatest asset: energy.
Director Sean S. Baker yawns at this proposition, instead focusing the camera (er, phone) unflinchingly on Sin-dee and Alexandra. The two colleagues are quickly set up as friends, to the point of basically being kin. Sin-Dee has just returned from a short stint in prison and, after catching up on the neighborhood gossip from Alexandra, goes to look for Chester (James Ransone), her cheating boyfriend and pimp. And that’s the plot. Besides a few minor narrative deviations, including a hilarious middle portion involving the girl Chester slept with, and Alexandra’s vocal performance at a club, Tangerine develops less plot in order to spend more time with the two leading actresses.
On a reported budget of well under $200,000, it’s inevitable that the film has a lower production value to it, and this isn’t even just because of the choice to shoot on an iPhone 5 (one of the earliest, but not the first film, to do this). Tangerine occasionally switches from theatrical comedy to having a vérité feel due to amateur line delivery here and there, and also a few noticeable sound issues. Regardless, these are minimal, and the feel of the camera is more in the company of a Dogme 95 film (which, Baker credits Lars von Trier as one of his many influences).
In fact, the handheld nature of the phone/camera perhaps gives the film its greatest asset: energy. Matching the palpable intensity shown by the leading actresses, the camera literally moves in and out from scenes at a pace which might be otherwise dizzying, but instead matches the raucous soundtrack which switches dramatically from the record-player style which accompanies the opening credits. As Sin-Dee marches out of the donut shop, ready to track down Chester and his temporary flame, she’s backed by an unforgettable beat which might as well be a battle hymn. She’s ready for anything, and so are we.
What can easily be said is that the film is unapologetic, non-expository, and yet is unmistakably sentimental.
Tangerine has already been heralded as a bellwether for transgender awareness and acceptance, and whether this is entirely accurate or not can be debated. However, it’s of great importance to consider the not-small detail that the two actresses playing the leading roles are themselves transgender women-something we don’t see in studio films such as Dallas Buyers Club and The World According to Garp. What can easily be said is that the film is unapologetic, non-expository, and yet is unmistakably sentimental. The comedy of the film is the nature of the two leading actresses, with the deadpan of Taylor’s Alexandra and Rodriguez’s quick verbal quips as Sin-Dee aiding us into their corner as they search for Chester. By the time they end their day in a laundromat, their unmistakable kinship is authentic and earned.
If independent film is around for anything, it’s to push out films like Tangerine. The sheer electricity infused into virtually every second of this film couldn’t have been accomplished with a more traditional story arc, setting, or even camera choice (I contend that Tangerine wouldn’t have looked half as good on 35mm). Taylor and Rodriguez bring the house down for the entire 88 minutes, and it’s hard to think that Baker hasn’t done something important in inviting transgender actresses to the center of the frame when, in decades past, we’d probably just cast Jared Leto instead.
If independent film is around for anything, it’s to push out films like Tangerine. The sheer electricity infused into virtually every second of this film couldn’t have been accomplished with a more traditional story arc, setting, or even camera choice.