A Bittersweet Dose of Sass and Ingenuity from Sean Baker Makes Tangerine a Worthy Wild Ride

PORTLAND—“Merry Christmas Eve bitch!”

Just like that, Tangerine starts with a spirited punch. Two beautiful and scantily clad hookers are sitting at a booth of a donut shop in Los Angeles, girl talking as they share a sprinkled donut. Sin-Dee-Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) has just been released from prison, and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) has just picked her up. They squeak and shriek and giggle so much it takes a moment to notice these women are transgender, but it’s clear they are best friends. Unfortunately Sin-Dee finds out right away that her boyfriend and pimp Chester (James Ransone) has been cheating on her with “some white ho.” She decides to start a manhunt for him all over Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles with Alexandra in tow, and so begins the tale in Tinseltown.

The camera shots and big music beats match Sin Dee’s powerful gate as she marches through town searching for said ho Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), and upon finding her, pulls her out of the lovely residence she is currently occupying (note: not a lovely residence) and drags her out into the street by her hair, onto the bus and through her cycle of daily errands. Alexandra has a performance at a nearby bar that evening, and Sin-Dee mustn’t be late. Dinah and Sin-Dee end up smoking some crack in the bathroom before the show to loosen up, and after the singing, the hunt presses on.

Image: Magnolia Pictures

Image: Magnolia Pictures

Advertised as a comedy, Tangerine did make me laugh out loud, but I couldn’t help getting nearly teary eyed as I watched the daily struggle of these prostitutes unfold. Sin-Dee pops around town like a Diva while Alexandra tries to keep her in check, begging her not to “cause drama!” The shooting style has a documentary feel to it, as if we’re following around real people, and it does feel authentic. Writers Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch stuck to a small set, that of Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles: All the magic happens between a donut shop, a car wash, public transportation and a few dirty LA streets.

What’s even more genius is the fact that the entire movie was shot using iPhones. Baker used an eight-dollar app called Filmic Pro for more control over the aperture, focus and color, and used a rig to keep the shots steady. The final ingredient was a couple of anamorphic lenses to help the footage look like it belonged on the big screen. The filmmakers had to get creative with their use of natural light and capture the tight close-ups that have become so important in an age where everyone wants to watch movies on their phone.

The film doesn’t seem to judge these women, rather it lets us observe a culture we seldom see or think of in day-to-day life, but that may be right under our noses or even in our own neighborhood. We get to see this sort of underworld that’s actually right in our midst. Perhaps we just weren’t paying attention.

The most emotional scene is the last, and I won’t give anything away except to say that it was an interesting reveal of what identity means to each of us. How much of who we are is wrapped up in what we wear, or how we look? As an American white girl growing up, I was constantly comparing my looks to that of the models in Vogue and other fashion magazines, wondering why I didn’t look as good as the models in those heavily edited photo-shoots. As a result I am always conflicted when it comes to transgender women. I see men that so desperately want to be women, and they pile on the make-up, the hair, the tight shirts and short skirts, but for what? To give in to the same pressures and unrealistic standards that women face every day? We praise women for not wearing make-up, but shame them for getting breast implants – but when Caitlyn Jenner does the opposite on both accounts, she’s hailed as a hero. It smells like a double standard to me.

Image: Magnolia Pictures

Image: Magnolia Pictures

Personal reflections aside, this movie didn’t seem to be making a statement about transgender identity. Rather, it showed us some marginalized, low rent ladies trying to make ends meet in a tough world, which was still an interesting story. The climactic ending that was supposed to tie it all together at Donut Time ended up leaving lose ends, making it a film that is less about the man hunt and more about friendship. There are plenty of feisty jokes about dicks, pussies and pimps that make Tangerine a fun but bittersweet and saucy ride through the world of marginalized society.