Sean Baker's Tangerine is either [A] a gritty, in-your-face, verite examination of the lives of transgendered prostitutes in Hollywood, [B] an upbeat, clever, and very funny portrait of racial and gender divides in contemporary America, or [C] a milestone evolution in filmmaking technology and aesthetics. If I were to tell you that all three of these descriptions were true, you probably would not believe me (I wouldn't believe it either). But perhaps even more impressive than this feat is that, in spite of containing these contradictory and seemingly overwhelming qualities, Tangerine is positively enjoyable to watch and surprisingly accessible to even the most skeptical of audiences.
Think about that for a second. A realistic portrayal of transgendered hookers struggling to make a living on the streets is not exactly a topic rife for comic fodder. Racial and gender barriers elicit anger and hostility (some of it deserved, some not) and rarely get examined outside mainstream Hollywood liberal message pictures. And films employing a revolutionary aesthetic are not immune from being a downright chore. Tangerine works as a complex balancing act between these different commitments and yet the film is so effervescent, so charming, and so unforced that you might overlook those challenges facing writer-director Baker.
The story takes place during Christmas Eve in Hollywood. No, not the impossibly glamorous Hollywood with the walk of fame, celebrity sightings, and Grauman's Theatre. Nearly all of Tangerine takes place within a roughly eight-block radius of the intersection between Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland. It is on this intersection, we quickly learn, where transgendered prostitutes frequent the streets (I learn from Wikipedia that indeed this is based on fact). At the corner of this intersection is a donut shop where were are first introduced to Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez). In the film's opening scene, Sin-Dee, who has just been released from a short jail sentence, learns from Alexandra that while she was locked up, her pimp boyfriend Chester cheated on her. Sin-Dee rushes out of the donut shop to initially confront Chester, but then decides (perhaps predictably) that the more grievous offense was committed by the white bitch who had the audacity to surrender to Chester in the first place.
This takes the two on a journey through the neighborhood, asking other prostitutes, johns, and anyone who will listen where they should go to find Chester and his latest conquest. The dialogue here isn't quite Shakespearian, but is clever in the way it immediately establishes the relationship between the two women: Not exactly best friends, certainly not rivals or victims, but perhaps as mutual witnesses to the follies and perversions that surround them. Their loyalty to each other is apparent, but isn't a loyalty borne out of staying protective from abusive johns or the police. Tangerine is not a message picture. Perhaps the best quality of both Alexandra and Sin-Dee -- as well as the film as a whole -- is their ability to maintain levity in the most grave of situations.
An example: Alexandra is a singer, and is scheduled to perform at a club that night. Sin-Dee has of course promised to be there, but finds herself running late after she is finally able to track down Dinah, Chester's new girlfriend (and who is anatomically female). She decides to delay her spectacle-driven confrontation with Chester so she can see Alexandra's performance. She drags Dinah along. They applaud and cheer her set. Soon, the three are giving each other beauty advice and discussing Alexandra's choice of songs on the way to locate Chester.
You see what I mean. The events depicted in Tangerine feel improvised and blissfully unexceptional, removing any impulse to create an obligatory tragedy out of the characters' torrid lives. No, living on the street and selling your body isn't a glamorous lifestyle, but you can make a few dollars and have a few laughs with fellow hookers and perhaps most importantly, feel sexually desired and prized rather than repulsed by mainstream society. What Baker and the actors are doing here looks seamless, but is actually quite delicate -- finding comedy in vice and taboo, while maintaining a comfortable distance from farce and mockery.
A third character also exists in Tangerine -- an Armenaian cab driver named Razmik (Karren Karagulian) who for the first twenty minutes of the film appears to have no immediate relationship to Alexandra or Sin-Dee. But we later see that he enjoys the company of the prostitutes, not only for procuring sexual favors, but also as passengers and friends (his attitude toward straight hookers is another story altogether). Is Razmik too much the product of sanguine fantasy, ignoring the behavior of actual johns in this milieu? Perhaps, and if there is any real flaw in Tangerine, it is the way Razmik's domestic space is too neatly contrasted from the exotic fantasy he lives on Santa Monica Boulevard. But once the gig is up and his nosy mother-in-law alerts Razmik's wife to the precise nature of his transgressions, the change in Tangerine's tone becomes apparent, shifting the focus to the solemn repercussions of emotional and transnational detachment.
Baker does a noble job of portraying the cosmopolitan melting pot of ethnicities that is the urban center of Los Angeles. In the film's penultimate sequence -- an ill-timed climax where Chester and Razmik are each confronted by their respective lovers at the same donut shop where the film opens -- Tangerine illustrates the complex negotiation of black, white, Armenian and East Asian cultures. Oscillating somewhere between Paul Haggis and an episode of Jerry Springer, the donut shop serves as a symbolic end to Alexandra and Sin-Dee's colorful journey at the same place it began. We get the sense that life for these people doesn't really move forward, but operates in a series of concentric circles which occasionally overlap and usually end up in the same location.
Watching Tangerine, there is an unmistakable sense that the film is doing something radically different, not only in its candid and unfiltered portrait of trans sex workers, but in its visual style (shaky-cam, handheld, and often quite striking). Indeed, after viewing the film I learn that Tangerine was shot entirely on multiple iPhone 5s's using anamorphic lens adapters -- not only as a cost-cutting maneuver, according to Baker, but because the iPhone's mobility was able to create a greater sense of fluidity and grit to the camera movements. The fact that this technological decision goes undetected throughout the film (one is unable to credibly detect the difference between footage shot on an iPhone versus a digital camera) attests to the incredible potential it offers for independent filmmakers telling unique stories with a pulse.
Finally, there is the question of the title. What does Tangerine refer to? It could refer to the dominant color palette of the film. It could be alluding to the forbidden fruit of human sexuality. It could also refer to the shape of the air freshener Alexandra buys Razmik as a present after a rendezvous at a car wash. Or it could just be an evocative catchall for a linear narrative so threadbare that it hardly warrants a formal title. Does it really matter? There are so many synonyms for sex, prostitutes (transgendered or not) and foreigners that a meaningful single title might have had an adverse effect for the brazenly undefined universe Tangerine succeeds so well in illuminating.
Rating: 3.5 stars