Wending its way through a sun-drenched, sleazy West Hollywood, Tangerine is a one-trans-woman mission to track down her philandering, affianced pimp. Just out of jail, as the holiday season reaches its height, Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) goes hard.
When her long-suffering friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) let’s slip about Sin Dee’s boyfriend Chester’s (James Ransome) infidelity during her short stint in the slammer, it sets in motion a chain of heavily soundtracked events that’s funny, scary, childish, high-octane and rude. Alexandra advises, “All men cheat, that’s why they call them trade, do them just as dirty as they do us.” But, inevitably, Sin-Dee doesn’t listen.
The action takes place in strip mall California- car washes, laundromats and the backs of cabs. It’s all shot close to the intersection of Santa Monica and Highland, a spot synonymous with prostitution and illegal activity, something that Tangerine doesn’t shy away from. Friendships are broken and moulded in dank bar bathrooms, business is brokered in fast food restaurants and the rag tag group of characters all finally come together in a late night doughnut shop stand-off.
Director Sean Baker never limits his LGBT cast to the sideline as Tangerine sways from sentimental holiday season movie to rip-roaring film noir, replete with tricks, trade, johns and pimps. Rounded off with great supporting roles from Mickey O’Hagan as Dinah (a prostitute who falls foul of Sin-Dee’s fury) and Karren Karagullian as Razmik (an Armenian taxi driver who holds a torch for the local working girls), it’s hard to prepare yourself for the ferocious, frivolous onslaught Tangerine brings.
Filmed entirely on an iPhone, Tangerine pioneers in other ways too. Trans actors playing trans roles shouldn’t seem too much of a logical leap. But in a movie industry that heaps accolades atop performances from straight actors portraying LGBT characters, while LGBT actors are relegated to non-starring background roles, it seems defiant and brave.
Even without considering his progressive casting, Baker’s film is splendidly alive, fresh and funny. It doesn’t take off its rings when it slaps you in the face. Never scared to experiment with genre, Tangerine is simultaneously an indie flick hoot with a heart of gold, film noir and fierce melodrama. Baker’s eye for character guides you through its many intersecting interludes, saturating Tangerine to capacity with memorable moments, from quip-quotient-high ghetto fabulous fun to the small, impactful tales of characters who subsist on the margins of Californian society, often sharing only a second of screen time.
The larger narratives don’t disappoint either – Alexandra’s inaugural club performance at Mary’s at 7pm, Razmik’s family problems, Sin-Dee, Chester and Dinah’s not-so-in-love triangle – all make good on L.A.’s farcical, beautiful and often horrible promise.
The opening line says it all: “Merry Christmas Eve, bitch!” It’s a Wonderful Life, it ain’t. Turns out life can be pretty crappy too. But if you see one holiday movie this season, make it Tangerine.
Words by Cormac O’Brien