Directed by Sean S. Baker.
2015. Rated R, 88 minutes.
Kitana "Kiki" Rodriguez
Sin-Dee (Rodriguez) is a pre-op transgender woman just home from twenty-eight days in prison. She’s hanging out with her friend Alexandra (Taylor) before reuniting with her boyfriend/pimp Chester (Ransone). Unfortunately, Alexandra drops some bad news on Sin-Dee. While Sin-Dee was away, Chester has been cheating on her with another woman. The only thing known about this woman is that she is white and her name starts with the letter D. Sin-Dee then goes on a mad dash around town in search of Chester and/or the mystery girl. Alexandra tags along for a while, but eventually goes her separate way in an effort to drum up interest for a singing gig she has later that evening. Finally, there’s Raz (Karagulian), the cabbie with whom the girls occasionally interact. We follow his exploits as he works a little, and cruises for transgender prostitutes a lot.
Set over the course of a single day, Tangerine is a film in which three stories start within close proximity of one another, go off in wildly different directions, and work their way back toward each other. The process is less forced than it is in many other films that use intersecting stories because it’s clear from the beginning that these are people who know each other and travel in the same circles. It only makes sense that they would cross paths from time to time and be looking for one another either out of concern, or to fulfill their own desires.
Fulfilling desires is what this film is all about. The people involved go all out to get what they want. There is a certain level of selfishness involved in the actions of all three of our main characters. As the film progresses, however, we see these actions largely come from what seems to be a lifelong deprivation of things they need. On the surface, they seem like frivolous wants. Through the events of the day, and without much at all in the way of exposition on the matter, we can tell that it’s much more than that. In the cases of Sin-Dee and Alexandra, its basic, if overzealous, attempts at filling a void each can sense, but might not be able to articulate. This is what makes them both human and keeps Sin-Dee’s actions from feeling cartoonish. Raz comes off a lot more selfish. His actions feel far greedier than the others. While he is also attempting to fill a void, he comes across as more unsavory. He doesn’t quite rise to the level of being a villain, but he’s not looked upon favorably by the audience nor the film itself.
What makes all three characters work are the performances that breathe life into them. As Sin-Dee, Kitana “Kiki” Rodriguez dominates the film with a big, showy performance. She’s loud, brash, and chews scenery like nobody’s business. It’s a role that plays to stereotypes, but manages to subvert them by injecting them with the type of genuine pain that fuels her erratic and irrational behavior. The issue is that she ranges so far out there she occasionally feels cartoonish. Since she’s amped up to eleven practically from the start, she can be a bit much to take. Mya Taylor is much more subdued in her portrayal of Alexandra. While Rodriguez’s Sin-Dee has a string of uncontrollable outbursts, Taylor’s Alexandra often internalizes and reflects before acting. This quieter approach is actually more impactful. It allows us to also internalize rather than involuntarily reacting the way we do with Sin-Dee. When she is hurting, we don’t just see it, we feel it.
The work of Rodriguez and Taylor looms so large they overshadow the performance of Karren Karagulian as Raz. Another reason for this is that it’s debatable whether or not his character’s storyline needs to be here. Some have said it does not because it could be removed and what eventually happens between Sin-Dee and Alexandra would be unchanged. We would arrive at the same point regardless of his involvement. I agree with that when we’re discussing how the film’s story advances. However, a film is allowed to be more than its overriding plot. Therefore, I would counter that argument with Raz’s story. It has a plot all its own that doesn’t detract from the main. It also has as much to say about fulfilling desires as the other film. It possibly has even more on its mind due to the fact that what Raz does more directly affects a greater number of people. Karagulian’s work in the role is perfect in the way he makes Raz so detestable. He is as slimy as they come with no redeeming qualities. We feel unclean just watching him.
The look of the film is also a great aid in pulling us into it. There is a starkness and grittiness applied to this slice of Los Angeles that makes it hard to see it as anything other than a place fueled by the exceptional desperation of its inhabitants. It’s a perfect fit given what we know of them. We don’t just watch them walk around in their world. We feel the heaviness of their atmosphere. This quality is largely due to how the film was shot. Director Sean S. Baker famously decided to shoot the whole thing using only a couple of iPhones. I don’t know if this was originally a financially motivated decision, or not, but it works wonderfully. I don’t think the film would be quite as effective if it looked any other way. In the future, we might look back at Tangerine as a watershed moment for independent filmmaking. Bringing one’s vision to life is a lot less cost prohibitive when you can make a legitimately good movie with your smartphone. Who knows what this film will inspire? Unfortunately, the fact of how it was made is lost on the general public. I wish Apple had made a bigger deal of it. I can’t help but think they would have if it weren’t about transgender prostitutes.
The subject matter may not be suitable for a giant corporation’s ad campaign, but it provides us with an endlessly interesting film. The people in it are not bound by the stereotypes of ‘what’ they are, but allow us to see ‘who’ they are. In doing so we become riveted by and invested in their plight. Our empathy is rewarded with a plethora of emotions to deal with. We wind up feeling as spent as our main characters when we get to our bittersweet conclusion.