A film that could easily be seen as some kind of Kevin Smith-John Waters-Larry Clark hybrid, Tangerine is a crazy, frenetic examination of a day in the life of a transgender prostitute who, having just been released from prison, sets out in search of her pimp/boyfriend and the woman with whom he has supposedly been fornicating in her absence. Filled with strange camera angles, crazy characters and a rough-around-the-edges aesthetic, Tangerine is a hugely entertaining romp, thanks in large part to the sheer energy that Kitana Kiki Rodriguez brings to her performance as Sin-Dee, a force of nature who stalks through a side of Hollywood that is far less glamorous than we typically get to see. Whilst the film has achieved some notoriety because director Sean Baker shot it entirely using three iPhones, it is easy enough to overlook the limitations that such a choice inevitably invokes because of the commitment from all involved to present a raw, realistic and ultimately sympathetic portrayal of a group of people who are too often demonised or marginalised on screen.
Upon her release from incarceration on Christmas Eve, Sin-Dee meets up with her bestie Alexandra (Mya Taylor) at a donut shop in the area where the two typically ply their trade. When Sin-Dee learns that Chester (James Ransone), the pimp with whom she is in love, has cheated on her, she launches into a rage that never lets up as her fury fuels her determination to track them down. The discovery that this other woman, whose name is confirmed as Dinah after much confusion – is not only white and blonde but also cisgender only serves to increase her indignation. Whilst Sin-Dee’s mission is the crux of the story, there are a couple of parallel narratives that supplement the action. One centres on Alexandra’s efforts to entice an audience to her performance at a local bar; she hands out flyers whilst trying to keep track of Sin-Dee’s movements. One scene in which Alexandra takes on a client who has refused to pay for services rendered is hilarious as the two brawl in the street while the police look on with detached amusement before finally deciding to intervene. As ludicrous as the scene seems, you can’t help but feel there is some sense of truth playing out here in Alexandra’s desperation to get what is owing to her.
The second strand revolves around Razmik (Karren Karagulian), an Armenian cab driver who is married with a child but just can’t shake his penchant for transgender prostitutes; but only those with their male genitalia still intact as we discover when he mistakenly solicits a young lady, only to banish her back to the street when he discovers she is sans appendage. There are some elements in Tangerine that some people might find problematic, such as the violent and somewhat degrading treatment that Sin-Dee dishes to Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan) as she drags her through town – stopping to catch Alexandra’s performance along the way – for a confrontation with Chester. It is this showdown – ironically back where it all started – that brings the story full circle. Truths are told and secrets are revealed as the various characters engage in an extended exchange filled with sassy banter, brutal put-downs and smart-ass comebacks that is both funny and affecting.
Co-written by Baker with and Chris Bergoch, much of Tangerine has an improvisational feel to it, both in performance and presentation. There is a clandestine tone that pervades the piece through which the melting pot of Los Angeles is presented in new and exciting, if not altogether positive, ways. The performances certainly lack polish, but the actors – and Rodriguez in particular – more than make up for it with energy and bravado. Sure, it may not be perfect from a performance or technical standpoint, but this is a film made with a true independent spirit featuring characters and situations that mainstream cinema generally won’t touch. Despite its shortcomings, Tangerine is humorous, heartfelt and hugely entertaining.