NOTE: the following review contains SPOILERS If you haven’t watched the film
Tangerine is an American indie comedy-drama film, directed by Sean Baker and written in collaboration with Chris Bergoch. The film stars transgender actresses Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor as the two lead characters. The first Academy Award campaigns for openly transgender actresses supported by a film producer were launched for Rodriguez and Taylor and were supported by prominent transgender celebrities like Laverne Cox. The film focuses not only into the general umbrella term of transgender but also delves into its various subcultures, as the protagonists, Sin-Dee (Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Taylor) are both trans women of colour, who work as sex workers in the shady streets of Los Angeles’s red light area. So this film not only makes the audience traverse through the less glamorous and seedier area of the city of angels, it gives a very harsh slice-of-life story coupled with comedy, as seen in the journey of two fiercely individualistic transwomen.
Another interesting fact about this film is that it has been completely shot on iPhones, so that traditional cinematic lighting could be avoided, but also to increase more mobility without incurring extra costs and to attract less attention while shooting in public areas, as most of the film shows Sin-Dee and Alexandra walking, chasing, and hustling around town. The film was shot in a 24-hour span around Christmas by Baker, also so that he could use the city’s decorations for his production design and exposition.
The film is essentially a very unconventional Christmas story. It opens on Christmas Eve, and we follow Sin-Dee Rella to a doughnut bar called Donut Time, located at the intersection of Highland Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard. As she catches up with her best friend, Alexandra, the latter accidentally slips Sin-Dee’s boyfriend and pimp Chester has been cheating on her. Sin-Dee storms out, even more, enraged that Chester cheated on her with a “fish” ( a local slang term used for cisgender women). She locates Dinah, one of Chester’s romantic partners, and is taunted for believing that Chester would have remained faithful to her.
We also follow Alexandra as she tries to promote her musical performance slated for the evening by handing out flyers. Sin-Dee realizes she is late and drags Dinah along with her to the mostly empty bar where Alexandra is supposed to be performing. Eventually, they all decide to go back to the doughnut shop so that Sin-Dee can confront Chester.
While we see Sin-Dee and Alexandra make a minimum wage through their sex work, we also see a parallel in their clientele, most notably in the character of Razmik, a cisgender Armenian immigrant with a wife, mother, and children, as he avails Alexandra’s services during his cab driver shifts. While this storyline seems particularly harmless in the beginning, it takes more and more ominous turns as compared to the humanizing treatment of the protagonists. We see Razmik throw out a young, cisgender sex worker out of his car when he discovers she isn’t trans, and we also see him abandon his family and newly born daughter as he pursues Alexandra in a relentless and slightly disturbing pursuit.
The film culminates in a chaotic comedy of sorts back in Donut Time, from where the first scene started. Sin-Dee engages in a screaming match with Chester, and right when the owner of the restaurant has had enough, it magnifies a thousand times more when Razmik arrives looking for Alexandra, and is caught red-handed by his mother and family, who scream at each other in Armenian, their argument lost on the rest of the English speaking characters. This scene is equal parts comedy and tragedy, and a very underrated cinematic moment, as you see those characters lose out on the very point they are so rightly arguing about because their audience just won’t listen to them.
But perhaps the most poignant scene of the film arrives at the very end. When Chester confesses to Sin-Dee that he also slept with Alexandra, a hurt Sin-Dee runs away and tries to pick up some clients. Instead, they throw urine on her face and drive away while yelling transphobic slurs at her, just as Alexandra catches up with her. Alexandra takes a devastated Sin-Dee to the nearest laundromat to wash her wig, gives her her own wig to wear while they wait for the wig to be cleaned. This is a scene without any dialogues, and you can see the sisterhood and silent solidarity that these two transwomen have towards each other even when the world has failed them.
The film premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2015. Tangerine is a must watch, not only for budding indie filmmakers who want to make films in tight budgets but also because it is an exercise in empathy for story writers in general. The film follows real trans people, in improvised and fictionalized setups, but in real gritty scenarios with equal parts humour and affection. It is brash and unapologetic about its two colourful lead characters. Baker, the crew, and the cast deserve all the appreciation that comes their way because of showing the harsh reality of trans people and sex workers to lesser informed audiences but also making it just as entertaining, hilarious and pop culture mainstream for the trans viewer. It is also a lesson to Hollywood’s major casting problem, as it has cast actual trans women of colour in leading roles, making it a very rare breed of film in the usually whitewashed and cisgendered industry.
Regarding this thought, Sean Baker said this after the film was released: “This is just one more look at a subculture within the trans community. This is an opportune moment; when we set down this road, it wasn’t in the zeitgeist the way it is now. But if this film is successful in any way, to me it’ll be about what it can do for Mya and Kiki. People will recognize their talent when they see this film, and I want them to be able to parlay this into whatever they want to do. They don’t just have to play trans roles. They can play whatever, they’re that talented. I just hope audiences and the industry recognize that.”
We do too.