Director: Sean Baker
Writers: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Stars: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karen Karagulian
Rarely in cinema are we lucky enough to experience a film that so fully embodies the present moment without the rose-tinted glam of Hollywood. Sean Baker’s fifth feature length film, Tangerine, is so grounded in the strange and bewildering world of today (granted, the film’s world is rather small) that it almost feels like watching a live-stream report or even a high-brow reality TV program. And I mean this in the most complementary sense.
The plot of Tangerine is essentially this: on the same day that trans sex worker, Sin-Dee, is released from a brief stint in jail, she discovers that her boyfriend/pimp has been cheating on her. The rest of the film follows Sin-Dee and her best friend, Alexandra, as they attempt to track down her pimp and his mistress. But Tangerine is not a simple revenge story. It is part vignette and part traditional narrative. The story follows multiple story-lines: Sin-Dee’s, Alexandra’s, and an Armenian cab driver named Razmik.
From the very first scene, Baker nods toward a multitude of filmmakers, from Jim Jarmusch and Richard Linklater to Quentin Tarantino. The film opens with an overhead shot of a café table (feat. two pairs of hands and a donut) reminding us of Coffee and Cigarettes. The main characters’ vulgar language, the casual anecdotes, the LA backdrop, the violent manhunt all bring to mind Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. Meanwhile, the multiple storylines, the time constraint (specifically, a narrative that occurs over a single day) and the colloquial dialog are reminiscent of Linklater’s Slacker and even Dazed and Confused. There is arguably even a Lynchian aspect to the film: in one scene, Alexandra performs cabaret in front of a red curtain, perhaps a Blue Velvet reference.
The script is littered with pop culture references and is set to blaring electronic music as well as classical scores. It is the ultimate mix of realist imagery in a surrealist context. The time is now, but now seems unreal: in one scene, two obliterated men puke all over Raznik’s taxi while one of them yells for him to take them to a holiday after-party. Tangerine moves rapidly, but hangs when a pause is appropriate. At times, the characters themselves are too quick for the camera to keep up, but the more pensive, stagnant shots capture key moments in the film. In one scene, a long take of Sin-Dee at the bus stop is followed by a tracking shot of her briskly returning to her mission. This is just one example of the film’s dramatic mood swings: from over-caffeinated to introspective and vice versa.
I could analyze the film from a sociocultural or LGBT perspective, but the truth is, Tangerine does not present with a political agenda. To me it is a film about payback, entangled with themes of friendship and love. The distinction here is that Tangerine is not about what it means to be a sex worker or a member of the trans community. Nor is the film about what it means to live in poverty in present day LA. Instead, Tangerine features marginalized members of society in a small scope, providing a new, open space for a tried and true narrative. This does not mean that the plight of being queer/trans/impoverished is ignored, however. The reality of Alexandra and Sin-Dee’s ostracization comes out in subtle moments: in one scene, a policewoman tells Alexandra that it’s Christmas Eve and she should go back to her family. Alexandra replies, “What family?” As Tangerine progresses, we come to see that Sin-Dee may be the only true family that Alexandra has.
One of Baker and his co-writer’s successes with Tangerine is their ability to portray strongly feminist themes throughout the film. As previously mentioned, Sin-Dee and Alexandra are more than best friends; they are family to each other. Sin-Dee drags her hostage (another sex worker, Dinah) to Alexandra’s singing gig, determined not to miss it. Alexandra cleans up Sin-Dee after an anonymous punk throws piss at her. There are oddly touching moments between Sin-Dee and Dinah: the two share a peace pipe in the club bathroom and Sin-Dee silently does Dinah’s make-up. This sisterly solidarity builds up walls between female and male characters and is reminiscent of feminist separatism.
However, we remain sympathetic toward the so-called male “antagonists,” Chester the pimp and Raznik the cab driver. The two possess redeeming qualities and are effectively humanized. Chester may be truly in love with Sin-Dee (he had proposed) and is so downright stupid that you can’t help but feel badly for him. Raznik has an unrequited crush on Sin-Dee and follows her around like a lost puppy. Tangerine is full of shocks, but perhaps the most shocking of all is how heartfelt the film is at its core. The script and cinematography are both explosive and exploitative, but there is much warmth to be found within the scenes.
Tangerine was shot on an iPhone, offering a lesson on a new genre of voyeurism, one that could only exist in this technological age. There is a dualistic intimacy and distance to the camera. Shaky, rushed shots bring an acute awareness to the camera work, keeping us from focusing directly on the characters. In these shots, the filming feels immediate, urgent. Of course, this camera work is entirely purposeful and directed. Yet the same camera tricks us into believing we see the unfiltered truth behind the characters. Baker’s use of the iPhone breaks down walls that have so long been cemented into place by traditional Hollywood cinematography.
Tangerine is an honest look at what it means to be a part of today’s world. There are brilliantly captured images of desperation and greed, all side effects of the dysphonic, displaced world in which we currently live. There are booming sounds and hyper dialog, without the special effects.
At the end of a long day, Sin-Dee and Alexandra sit side-by-side, tired but content. As we watch the two of them at the close of the film, we experience the same weary satisfaction.