Sometimes it’s easy to overlook just how fast social change in the United States can be. For me it was astonishing to see not just how quickly transgender rights entered the mainstream but how all kinds of new words entered the vocabulary of everyday use. Even as a very liberal person I have to admit to finding all that change off-putting as society now has to come up with all sorts new rules to govern all manner of interactions. Tangerine is far from being the first film with transgender leads but as far as I know it is the first American film in which its producer campaigned for its performers to be nominated for the Best Actress category for the Academy Awards. Even if this bid ultimately failed, it seems that this will only be a matter of time.
It’s Christmas Eve and Sin-Dee Rella has just gotten out of a short stint in jail, meeting with her best friend Alexandra. Both are black transgender sex workers and Alexandra accidentally lets slip that Sin-Dee’s boyfriend and pimp Chester has been cheating on her with a white cisgender woman. Enraged, Sin-Dee charges off in search of both of them. Worried about causing drama, Alexandra goes off on her own and in any case it soon becomes evident that she’s is more concerned about her upcoming performance at a local bar that evening, spending her day giving out flyers and asking her friends and acquaintances to remember to show up. A third character is a taxi driver of Armenian origin named Razmik. Initially it isn’t clear why the film follows him as he picks up and drives customers in that area but it soon becomes clear that he is himself a frequent customer of this group of transgender sex workers.
It’s easy to become annoyed by these characters and by extension the film itself. Sin-Dee’s temper makes her an unsympathetic character and the way she storms about town bullying everyone she knows into telling her about Chester and his new girl tries the audience’s patience. The lack of any apparent connection between Razmik and the other two main characters is perplexing as well though I daresay that the revelation of his particular fetish is both shocking and amusing. But as we get to know them better, we can’t help but feel for them. There are few things as pathetic as a prostitute who falls in love with her own pimp and Chester’s new girl Dinah delights in mocking her for it but the actress who plays Sin-Dee, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, does such a wonderful job that we’re touched by the sincerity of her affections. Razmik’s scenes of his family dinner for Christmas Eve cement the fact that he is outwardly an ordinary working class guy who loves and supports his family and the film does not pass judgment on him for his secret vices. These characters might all be on the seedy side of society but this film makes it clear that they are all very much human.
The final confrontation which brings all of the threads is both awful for the characters and hilarious for the audience. That it takes place in a donut shop run by a Chinese woman who speaks poor English and so must be a recent immigrant just highlights how wonderfully this film celebrates America’s diversity. The final scene in which we finally see both Sin-Dee and Alexandra naked so to speak is simply amazing. Without their wigs and with Sin-Dee’s masculine frame that she had been hiding under her clothes clearly visible, we actually see that the two of them really are women in all of the ways that matter. The sense of insecurity and vulnerability that Sin-Dee exudes without her wig and her clothes is a powerful statement that this is very much not who she sees herself as. The simple gesture of sisterly affection that Alexandra makes is I think one of the best shots of the year.
Another reason that Tangerine made headlines is that it was shot entirely using IPhones. It’s possible at the beginning to notice the lower video quality but your eyes get used to it soon enough. The color of the title suffuses the film, reflecting the sunniness of the city even in December. Apart from anything else, I thought that as Sin-Dee makes her way around the city on foot and by public transport, it provides an excellent street-level view of Los Angeles. When was the last time you saw someone take a city bus or the metro in LA in a film? In any case, it’s a great example of how technology, in the form of both the IPhone and affordable editing software, is now more than ever enabling filmmakers to make great art on a tight budget. So yeah, this is a fantastic film for multiple reasons so you all should watch it.