Film Review: ‘Tangerine’


An acerbically funny yet emotionally engaging film about friendship and the surprising alliances that arise in marginalised America, Sean Baker’s Tangerine (2015) is a riotously entertaining portrait of life on the streets of LA. Baker has cultivated something of a reputation for telling conventional stories about unconventional characters, from an illegal Chinese immigrant struggling to raise money to pay of his debt in Take Out to the moral conundrum faced by an aspiring porn actress in Starlet.

Tangerine is no different, focusing on the exploits of Sin Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and her friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor), two trans-gender prostitutes working on Santa Monica Boulevard. It’s Christmas Eve, and Sin Dee has just been released from a 28-day prison stint for solicitation. Enjoying a celebratory snack at Donut Shop with her best friend Alexandra, Sin-Dee learns her pimp boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone), has been sleeping around with a ‘fish’ (a cisgender white female). Determined to find the culprit, Sin-Dee hits the streets, dragging the audience along with her on a voyage through Tinseltown’s red-light district. It’s a simple premise, but one that explodes from the blocks and never backs down.

Baker shoots his cast with tremendous sympathy, never victimising or pitying them, while also managing to circumvent any accusations of anthropological fetishism. This intimacy was enabled by Baker’s decision to film on iPhones outfitted with anamorphic lens, although you’d never guess from the finished project. Shot in widescreen, Tangerine looks beautiful, and has clearly been edited and worked on in post-production by someone who appreciates the tactile qualities of celluloid, with each frame saturated with the energy and entropy of the streets; indeed LA has rarely looked this beautiful. Polanski once said that “Los Angeles is the most beautiful city in the world” before adding a slight addendum – “provided it’s seen at night, from a distance”.

Baker introduces a third character to give the story more depth, Razmik (Baker regular Karren Karagulian) an Armenian cab driver who’s also one of Sin-Dee and Alexandra’s regular customers. Whilst Sin-Dee acts as a passport to Tinseltown’s less glamorous neighbourhoods, Razmik’s cab gives us a chance to explore the city from a distance and allows the film to develop into a larger study of LA. Thanks to Hollywood, LA is often referred to as the world’s most photographed city, but by presenting us with a more representational depiction of its streets Baker allows the audience to look behind the cinematic caricature, an image he beautifully juxtaposes with the lives of his marginalised, and similarly misrepresented cast.

Poetic realism for a digital age, Tangerine also shares a lot of qualities with the cinema of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. There’s no cheap manipulation here and Baker’s characters never come across as victims. It’s clear that both Rodriguez and Taylor were instrumental in how the film’s dialogue turned out, and whilst many might cower at its disregard for political correctness, Baker’s decision to eschew your typical miserablist approach of neo-realism is highly refreshing. With Orange is the New Black‘s Lavern Cox and Caitlyn Jenner bringing Transgender lives into the public arena, it’s bracing to see a representation of this community that rejects the overwhelming the media discourse, and aims to pull apart the binary boundaries of race and gender and present a deeply personal, and wholeheartedly individual account of Trans life, complete with an appealingly optimistic finale.

Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble