Having seen and found myself fond of Sean Baker’s Starlet, his follow-up Tangerine was high on a list of anticipated works. Add to that the fact that it’s actually a film that features trans actresses in prominent roles as trans women — without saddling them with an exploitative narrative — and you’ve got me sold. After watching the finished product, only one thing is certain: it’s a total fucking delight.
Following my showing, a woman asked me if all my laughter had been genuine, whether I’d actually enjoyed myself so much in watching the journey that these characters went through. Immediately after I responded that yes, I absolutely did, she responded by saying she found it disturbing and walked away. Now, it’s hard to blame a person for not finding Tangerine as riveting as I did; there’s an abundance of material that some, er, less open-minded folks might find distasteful. There’s trashy fights, lots of language, folks throwing up, full-frontal nudity, sexual transactions, and oral sex in a carwash.
But it’s all completely natural to the narrative that unfolds. This off-beat Christmas tale is about two working girls, each on their own journey through the streets of LA. Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is on a personal vendetta to find the D-named woman (Mickey O’Hagan) who slept with her pimp/main squeeze Chester (James Ransone) and to confront the two of them about his cheating ways. Alexandra (Mya Taylor) has a more modest plan: make some money and try to coax every human being she knows into attending her show at 7 p.m on Christmas Eve.
It’s a simple enough narrative setup that allows for an abundance of character collisions, all of which build to a climactic donut shop gathering. And these interactions are primarily what makes the movie so entertaining. Practically each and every scene involving Sin-Dee features her confronting a supporting character in entirely amusing ways, with Alexandra being a perfect contrast to that with her comparatively collected demeanor, which occasionally breaks, even though she professes to not want any drama. It’s not that the other characters that the film focuses on — like taxi driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian), who is introduced through a series of vignettes with a variety of customers and a cis female hooker he’s sorely disappointed in — aren’t interesting. It’s just that Alexandra and Sin-Dee are the film’s life.
The two women are charismatic as can be through and through, even when Sean Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch betray them on rare occasion by trying to make the audience care about the rest of the cast more than the friendship between Alexandra and Sin-Dee. In fact, weirdly enough, when every setup and character reaches the explosive climax that has been building, Baker lets it fizzle with some strange tonal shifts. There are some highs that would match Pedro Almodóvar’s wildness and lows that would leave anyone expecting that disappointed. But it all works out for audience and filmmaker anyway, though not necessarily for the characters.
What Baker must be praised for, regardless of minor missteps, is the way that he presents this exciting story. The fact that Tangerine was shot on a multitude of iPhone’s has been a large point of discussion, but what’s impressive isn’t so much how it was shot — though the natural cinematography is solid enough — it’s the energy that the film’s editing provides. In arguably its strongest act, Baker sifts through a bundle of raucous tunes perfectly timed to every step the gals take down the streets (and it sure ain’t Sheryl Crow singing about when “the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard”). The way the music strangely enhances the film’s natural presentation recalls Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers; a crude comparison, but not a totally unwarranted one.
It’s not all wacky shit though, and Tangerine is at its best when the dynamic between Alexandra and Sin-Dee shifts from pure laughs — though never truly away from humor — to something emotionally resonant that anyone could empathize with. Moments as simple as Alexandra singing “Toyland” to a barely-full bar or two friends sitting together at a laundromat offer relief from the punchy and manic melodrama that rules most of the film’s running length. Thankfully, Tangerine isn’t the kind of film you need an ounce of relief from. It’s flawed, but regardless of whether or not some lady thinks it’s all a little disturbing, it’s beautiful enough to make one’s Christmas wish be that there were more stories featuring these characters.
Directed by Sean Baker; written by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch; starring Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, James Ransone, Karren Karagulian and Mickey O’Hagan; 88 minutes.
Tangerine is currently experiencing a limited US release. In Miami, it is showing exclusively at O Cinema Wynwood.