Written by Matthew Taylor
In the long history of film, there have been many buddy comedies. There have been many Christmas movies. And there have been many dramas centered on prostitution. Tangerine, one of this year’s breakout indie films, is an example of all three of these subgenres. But you probably haven’t seen anything quite like it.
On the surface level, Tangerine stands out from the crowd thanks to its nontraditional production. Filmed entirely on an iPhone 5, the movie has an undeniably unique style to it. The cast is also made up, primarily, of first-time performers, including its two leads, trans women Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor. But Tangerine’s originality runs deeper than that. For 88 minutes, director Sean Baker takes his audience on a journey through a world typically ignored by film and mainstream news media, entertaining them while also forcing them to consider complicated issues involving sex-positive feminism, transgender rights and immigration.
Within seconds of starting, the viewer is thrust into the main story. On Christmas Eve in sunny Los Angeles, trans sex worker Sin-Dee (Rodriguez) is released from jail, and quickly learns from her best friend and fellow prostitute Alexandra (Taylor) that Sin-Dee’s boyfriend, pimp Chester (James Ransome) was unfaithful during her 28-day stint in jail. Armed with only the knowledge that the other woman is a “fish” (a cisgender woman), and that her name starts with a “D,” the two friends set off on a quest for revenge. Their story is juxtaposed with that of Armenian cab driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian), as he searches the streets for Sin-Dee, while simultaneously dealing with the pressure of supporting his family and handling the eccentric, and occasionally racist, customers he drives around.
By filming these stories on an iPhone 5, Baker creates a sense of intimacy that this story desperately needs. We spend less than 90 minutes with these characters, who are given virtually no backstory, yet they feel fully developed and their relationships are believable. The film’s editing, which quickly jumps between its characters, is jarring at first but, eventually, the movie grows to feel like a collection of snapshots into the lives of these various characters. This is, in part, because of Baker’s ability to implement so much meaning into the dialogue and plot development. Without ever becoming obvious, or feeling like a lesson in social justice, Tangerine’s two heroines are faced with rampant transphobia, putting two human faces on one of the most buzzed about topics of 2015. Being misgendered, objectified, and victims of police abuse are all depicted onscreen, but the viewer is left to ponder the issue on their own. The film is not preachy but, instead, hugely entertaining throughout.
Credit must be given to two leading actresses for breathing such life into their characters. Rodriguez or Taylor may not be best friends in real life, but their bond is wholly believable onscreen. And, on their own, they are comedic forces of nature. Rodriguez has a vibrant screen presence, while Taylor is a master of deadpan comedic reactions. But, as the film progresses, both actresses are forced to deal with some heavy subject matter, and they are more than up to the challenge. Their last scene together is one of the most poignant sequences of the year, and it hinges almost entirely on silent gestures and facial expressions.
Tangerine is not necessarily for everyone. Keeping in line with Baker’s previous works, the film is occasionally quite graphic. The dialogue is incredibly profane, and virtually nothing is left to the viewers’ imagination. Additionally, its disjointed camera work and abrupt editing makes the movie about as nontraditional as you can get. But that is no reason to dismiss the film as a whole. Beneath the crude humor and brashness is an emotional sincerity that most dramas wish they had. It’s also one of the most consistently funny comedies in recent memory. Furthermore, the cinematography is quite beautiful, making it easy to forget that the film was shot almost entirely on a phone. But most importantly, great films are meant to take us into another world and immerse us in a community that may be unfamiliar to us. Tangerine gives voice to a community that has been poorly represented in mainstream cinema, and forces viewers to consider socially relevant issues without sacrificing entertainment value. In a year filled with breakout indie hits, this is certainly a must see.
Tangerine rating: 9 out of 10.