Director and co-writer Sean Baker’s marvelous Tangerine is a delirious, delightful, and unhinged snapshot of queer Los Angeles, a willfully noncommercial and even at times abrasive film shot on a handheld iPhone 5s and brimming with sex, drugs, violence, and vice (and, in one scene, no small amount of vomit). Underneath, however, it’s also a bracingly emotionally bare character piece that reimagines the tradition of cult cinema and revitalizes the legacy of queer filmmaking.
Director: Sean Baker
Writers: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Producers: Sean Baker, Karrie Cox, Marcus Cox, Darren Dean, Shih-Ching Tsou
Editor: Sean Baker
Cast: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karren Kargulian, Mickey O'Hagan, James Ransone
Premiere: January 23, 2015 - Sundance
US Theatrical Release: July 10, 2015
US Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Tangerine follows two threads, which intertwine only occasionally at first. Spanning morning to midnight over the course of Christmas Eve in LA, the film follows the adventures of two transgender sex workers, Sin-Dee Rella and Alexandra, while also keeping tabs on Razmik, an Armenian cabbie having a rough day of business.
The story begins unceremoniously, with our two heroines shooting the shit in a fast food restaurant shortly after Sin-Dee’s four-week stint in jail for drug possession. Alexandra casually lets slip that Sin-Dee’s boyfriend and pimp, Chester, has been sleeping around on her while she’s been away—and, to Sin-Dee’s horror, with a white cisgender woman named Dinah (although, in one of the film’s running gags, few of her acquaintances can recall her name beyond the fact that it starts with a “D”). Sin-Dee bursts out onto the sun-blasted streets of LA to track Dinah down. Meanwhile, Alexandra, nonplussed by the whirlwind of drama she’s created, wanders the streets promoting her singing gig later that night and looking for work with limited success. Before too long, she crosses paths with Razmik, a longtime client of hers—and, it seems, a friend—who nonetheless has a bit more of an infatuation with Sin-Dee.
Sin-Dee’s single-minded pursuit is thrilling, visceral, and fitfully hilarious. But when the sun goes down and Christmas Eve becomes, well, Christmas Eve, the bombastic Technicolor blitzkrieg of action that forms the film’s first half soon gives way to a knottier, more tender and low-key tone. Here, the film not only brings Sin-Dee face to face with Dinah and reunites her with Alexandra, but brings them all together with Chester and, ultimately, even Razmik and his family, catalyzing a volatile and bittersweet conclusion.
Kitana Kiki Rodriguez turns in a terrific performance as Sin-Dee, making her seem wise, wounded, free-spirited, and lighthearted all at once. Mya Taylor, too, is sensational as Alexandra, who emerges partway through as the film’s emotional and moral core only to have that identity complicated by a revelation toward the end. Both are non-professional actors, recruited by Baker and his co-writer Chris Bergoch in the course of the film’s early development, and both bring personal experience to their roles—Taylor as a sex worker on the same corners where the film is shot, and Rodriguez as an advocate for trans issues and an HIV/AIDS educator in the community. But there’s an ease and a spark to each of their performances that makes it clear that they’re both naturally gifted actors, too.
It’s thanks to them that the film is able to pull off something that, considering mainstream cinema’s shameful history of portraying trans people, seems a small miracle: their characters are seemingly able to roam the silver screen free from pressure to signify and represent—they’re allowed, simply, to be. The evolution of gay, queer, and trans representation in film and television has been fraught with respectability politics, which demands that characters serve as a certain type of role model, never disturbing the normative sensibilities of an imagined cis, straight audience. Tangerine, however, refuses to make props out of its characters’ identities—Sin-Dee and Alexandra’s lives as trans women and as sex workers are never forgotten, but are also never made the film’s central struggle or conflict (and there’s also something to be said for its depiction of Razmik’s immigrant experience—and his sexuality—which Baker and Bergoch attend to with similar care and thoughtfulness).
By foregrounding its characters’ glorious, outrageous selves while never forsaking their humanity, Tangerine embodies the renegade spirit that has animated queer cinema’s vanguard from the beginning. It triumphantly and provocatively rockets past the temptations of homogenized, “respectable” queerness and into a humane, profane, and just plain fun cinematic future. You’ll leave theater wondering not just when the rest of the film world will catch up, but when the real world will, as well.