Today: February 28, 2024


There are two things that need to be said about Sean S. Baker’s Tangerine. One of these things is obvious and of interest mainly to film geeks, the other is profound and of interest to anyone with an inch of human soul.

The obvious thing to say about Tangerine is that it is a technical marvel. Shot entirely on iPhones using professional film apps, hand-held Steadicam mounts, and clip-on adapters designed to help the phones film in cinematic widescreen, Tangerine is not only one of the best-looking American films in recent memory, it also achieved its singular aesthetic using a set of tools that are well within the reach of most amateur filmmakers.

The more profound thing to say about Tangerine is that it is a film that tells a story about the kinds of people who tend not to appear in American films. It examines the lives of these people with not only a great deal of insight into class, race, gender, and sexuality but also a great deal of warmth. Much like its protagonists, Tangerine is beautiful, sexy, smart, strong, hilarious, and heart-breaking in absolutely all of the best possible ways.

At the heart of the film is Kitana Kiki Rodriguez’s Sin-Dee Rella, an African American transwoman sex worker who has just spent a month in jail for possession of crack cocaine. Back on the streets and looking fierce, she spends her last dollar on a donut she shares with her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor), another transwoman sex worker who managed to get off crack. The luridly-coloured donut is both a Christmas gift and a tiny celebration as Sin-Dee has a big announcement to make about her and long-term boyfriend-slash-pimp Chester (James Ransone). However, before Sin-Dee can make her announcement, Alexandra leaps to the conclusion that Chester and Sin-Dee are about to break up because Chester hooked up with someone else while Sin-Dee was in prison. Shocked to her core, Sin-Dee’s sadness soon turns to anger when she learns that Chester didn’t just cheat on her but cheated on her with a white cisgender woman or ‘fish’. With a reluctant Alexandra in tow, Sin-Dee sets off to find Chester and his new squeeze.

One of the more significant things about Tangerine is that while the entire film takes place in Los Angeles, Sin-Dee and Alexandra wind up searching for Chester almost entirely on foot. This is significant as most films shot in Los Angeles tend to reflect the fact that the city was built around the car. This means that, simply by virtue of focussing on two characters that are too poor to afford cars, Baker has wound up shining a completely new light on the city of angels, and what beautiful light it is!

Despite being shot entirely on camera phones, Tangerine’s Los Angeles looks absolutely stunning as saturated colours burn the eye and lens-flares consume entire streets. This vision of Los Angeles as a place that is almost too vivid to be comprehensible perfectly complements the character of Sin-Dee who stomps about the place in cut-off shorts, ankle boots and an enormous leather backpack that makes her look like an oversized stroppy toddler. Moving from friend-to-friend and enemy-to-enemy in her quest for vengeance, her standard tactic involves rocking up at someone’s place of work and pinning them to the wall with a torrent of abuse and provocation as Alexandra looks uncomfortable and threatens to leave. “No Drama!” the girls on the corners yell when they see Sin-Dee coming but drama is precisely what they get.

As funny as Sin-Dee’s finger-jabbing fury may be, it is both strengthened and humanised by the presence of Alexandra. Alexandra and Sin-Dee are best friends who share not only a good deal of personal history but also many of the hardships inherent in being an African American transwoman sex worker in a culture that considers all three labels to be reasonable grounds for excluding someone from the human race. While the two women may resolve their conflicts in very different ways, they share a similar desire for self-affirmation and face many of the same impediments from a profoundly unjust world. While Sin-Dee wants to marry Chester, Alexandra wants to sing a pretty Christmas song in a hilariously empty bar. Alexandra puts up with a lot of shit from Sin-Dee but she understands how much her friend has invested in the idea of being with Chester and these bonds of friendship and understanding are also what compel a distracted and tweaking Sin-Dee to turn up at Alexandra’s concert with a skinny white girl in a head-lock.

Aside from being a moving and insightful character study of both Sin-Dee and Alexandra, Tangerine also goes out of its way to comment on broader issues of gender and sexuality. For example, there’s a lovely scene quite early on when an elderly Native American complains to a taxi driver about his mother’s decision to name him Mia as while the name means ‘red bird’ in Cherokee, it just sounds like a woman’s name to Anglo-Saxon ears. The old man then goes on to joke that his mother might as well have looked out the window and named him after some animal droppings, such is the hardship of growing up with a name that does not fit your chosen gender. Now, imagine if your problems regarding gender extended beyond your name to your entire body. Imagine if your every effort to make your physical body and personality a better fit with your gender provoked more pain and more abuse. Imagine both of those things and you may be part of the way towards understanding what it means to be either Sin-Dee or Alexandra.

The Armenian taxi driver lets the old man’s somewhat clueless comments pass without comment but the film expresses its displeasure by drawing a comparison between the old man saying stupid things about gender and two drunk blokes throwing up in the back of the cab. The taxi driver turns out to be the third most important character in the film.

Karren Karagulian’s Armenian taxi driver Razmik differs from Sin-Dee and Alexandra in so far as he has access to a car. This car not only gives him the power to move around the neighbourhood much more quickly, it also allows him to shift rapidly between identities: One minute he’s a pleasant taxi driver, the next he’s a ravening sex addict. The car’s mobility also reflects the fact that the driver is a straight cisgender white man whose privilege allows him to escape the consequences of his transgressive identity while Sin-Dee and Alexandra can never hope to escape theirs.

Razmik’s true nature only becomes apparent when he picks up a sex worker between jobs. Shifting oddly in his seat, he keeps scrutinising the woman’s face and declaring her to be beautiful. Visibly uncomfortable, the sex worker directs him to a side street where Razmik asks for oral sex. However, when the woman reaches for his crotch, he waves her away and explains that he wants to go down on her. At which point he is horrified to discover that she does not have a penis. Aside from being an amusing reversal of what tends to happen when insecure straight men accidentally hook up with transwomen, the film’s treatment of Razmik is one of the film’s stronger elements.

Usually, when cinema confronts straight men with transwomen it tends to depict the men as being either disgusted (as in Robert B. Weide’s adaptation of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People) or confused (as in Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of Wonder Boys). When the confrontation does end well, it tends to view the straight man’s acceptance of the transwoman as something unexpected and spiritually generous (as in Neil Jordan’s Crying Game). Razmik fits into none of these categories as he is someone who specifically seeks out transwomen and seeks them out so often that he winds up spending every penny he makes on sex workers.

At first, Baker keeps Razmik’s story quite separate from that of Sin-Dee and Alexandra until it emerges that Razmik has a massive crush on Sin-Dee. In fact, Razmik’s infatuation is so pronounced that he even abandons his family in the middle of Christmas dinner in order to go and look for her. The three strands come together when Sin-Dee finally tracks Chester down to a donut shop and begins demanding answers. Ransone (who played the wonderfully erratic dock worker in the second series of The Wire) is on absolutely sensational form, playing Chester as a manipulative jerk who keeps his girls under control and himself out of trouble by pitting them against each other whenever he does something wrong. The confrontation between Sin-Dee and Chester rapidly spirals out of control and while it finishes surprisingly quickly, the repercussions for each of the characters are beautiful, heart-breaking and intensely thought-provoking. Tangerine is a film that is beautiful, important and timely… what more could you possibly ask?

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