By Joanna van der Veen
A few years ago, halfway across the world at Argentina’s Mar del Plata Film Festival, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tangerine’s director Sean Baker. Back then he’d just released Starlet, an uplifting and touching story about two women getting to know each other despite the vast gap in their ages. I was charmed by Baker and I loved his film – it managed to tell an excellent story whilst taking a non-judgemental and refreshing look at something I knew next to nothing about, the adult film industry.
Whilst perusing the programme for the Bath Film Festival, I read the intro to Tangerine and it immediately piqued my curiosity; however, it was only when I realised that Baker was at the helm that I knew I absolutely had to see it. The film is very different to Baker (and co-writer Chris Bergoch)’s previous offering but has one key similarity: it offers an insight into a part of society rarely shown in mainstream film, and manages to tell a cracking tale.
In Tangerine’s case, the rarely seen part of society is trans street culture in LA, and the story is that of transgender sex worker Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriquez). We follow Sin-Dee just after she’s been released from a short stint in jail, with the film’s opening sequence being her meeting her best friend and fellow trans sex worker Alexandra (Mya Taylor) in fast-food restaurant Donut Time. Alexandra tells Sin-Dee that, since she’s been away, her boyfriend Chester (James Ransome) has been cheating on her – with a woman. Sin-Dee proceeds to go on a rampage across LA, hunting down Chester and his new woman in order to exact her revenge.
Tangerine is a rollercoaster of a film: bursting with energy, quirky, brash and explicit. The story unfolds at a breakneck pace and has an intensity that is heightened by the filmmakers’ choice to shoot entirely on three iPhone 5s. This decision is more than just a gimmick to make people talk about the film (though it certainly did): it makes everything in it feel that bit more realistic and drenches the visuals in a technicolour brightness that it takes some time to get used to. The action is also egged on by the film’s soundtrack, an impressive mix of genres that includes some tracks that Baker first discovered via SoundCloud and various social media sites.
The film’s main plot is punctuated by two sub-plots that unfold more slowly and with less in-your-face drama. One centres on Alexandra’s quest to get people to come a show she’s performing in a local bar; it gives a touching insight into her character and showcases newcomer Taylor’s acting skills wonderfully. The other is about taxi driver Razmik, a family man with a secret. Before the film delves into what Razmik’s secret is we’re treated to intermittent scenes from his cab – drunken buffoons, projectile vomiting and selfies all feature. As the film reaches its climax, these subplots get woven into the main narrative with explosive consequences.
Perhaps surprisingly, Christmas is one of Tangerine’s key themes; in fact, the film’s official advertising bills it as a “decidedly modern Christmas tale”. All the action of the film happens on Christmas Eve and there are references to Christmas dotted throughout the film – my particular favourites were a regular ‘client’ being described as “Santa without the beard”, and Razmik’s extraordinarily stilted family Christmas dinner. However, unlike most ‘Christmas films’, Tangerine doesn’t have a glaringly obvious moral message; there’s a moral message in there – but you’re going to have to do a lot of digging and thinking to find it.
This complexity is, to my mind, what makes Tangerine such a special film. It’s not trying to glamourise trans street culture or make you like any of the characters. It’s an important film because of this, but also because it has two transgender lead characters, both played by transgender women – unfortunately a rare combination. Tangerine is a clever film that tackles complex issues, and it manages to be entertaining whilst doing so. However, despite laughing and gasping in equal measure throughout the film, I came out of the cinema feeling troubled and confused. I wanted to find out more about these characters (and their real-life counterparts) – but perhaps that’s the whole point.