Sean S. Baker’s Tangerine [Magnolia Pictures] hit our cinemas earlier this month [November 13] and we made sure to catch it on the big screen while it’s been hot in cinema conversation since its showcase at Sundance Film Festival.
Sin-Dee Rella (Rodriguez), fresh from prison release, is seated with best friend Alexandra (Taylor) in Donut Time. Alexandra spills the beans and reveals to Sin-Dee that her sleazeball of a boyfriend, Chester, has been unfaithful during her time away from the streets. The chaos kicks off immediately and it stays ever-present in the plot as soon as Sin-Dee storms the sidewalks with Alexandra following behind in what appears to be an expeditious montage of shots that not only establish their surroundings but also introduce us to other transgender sex workers walking the same sun-beamed streets. One of many innovative and resourceful techniques used by Baker and Cheng in Tangerine involved filming street sequences like this one while riding a bicycle in an attempt to imitate the classic tracking shot. It gives for a surprisingly smooth and naturalistic look on screen and it’s fair to say that it almost revivifies the way we look at the picture when we remember that this film was shot only using iPhone technology and without the use of dolly stabilization, commonly used on a big scale production. If you’re an amateur filmmaker on a thin budget, and looking to get that golden shot, then do take note here.
What did stick out in particular was Alexandra’s line, “All men cheat”, because as Tangerine unravels you soon realise that its theme of infidelity bares great significance in Razmik’s storyline, also, which is frequently intercut with Sin-Dee and Alexandra’s journey. One shouldn’t overlook Razmik’s character and whom he represents within the film. The Armenian taxi driver is painted as an outlander and a misfit in Tangerine for the obvious reason that comes from a different ethnic background but notably because of the choices he makes out of lust, which initially takes one by surprise. Each customer that Razmik picks up in his taxi is dismissive or discriminative towards him and it’s almost like they are caged in the back of his car and it makes for hilarious viewing but proves to be slightly saddening at the same time. The people within the Los Angeles community do not understand Razmik, or Sin-Dee and Alexandra, and in Tangerine they are rarely given the opportunity to be understood either. Instead we hear Razmik branded as a “Russian”, because of his accent, and Sin-Dee and Alexandra labeled “gay prostitutes”. A parallel is transparent here in how these three characters experience discrimination in the narrative because of the sub-culture they belong to and in how these characters do not follow traditional American norms as one may put it. Once Razmik crosses paths with Sin-Dee and Alexandra it eventually leads to a disaster that had everybody in the cinema wincing in embarrassment. We don’t do spoilers so we’ll just have to leave you guessing how it ends. If you listen attentively to the music in Tangerine you’ll hear how a blend of trap and hip-hop beats blend in with foreign Armenian sounds as the film develops further, placing more emphasis on this crossover that I’ve alluded to.
Often when we’re on the streets with Sin-Dee and Alexandra the camera work shifts to an observational, documentary-like filming style and it really does feel as though we’re getting a true glimpse of the locations and the people that surround them. I can even go as far to say that it actually feels as if we are there ourselves roaming the streets alongside Baker’s lead actresses. In passing dialogue Hollywood is described as a “beautifully wrapped lie” but the same cannot be said about the film itself. Why? Well, when you watch Tangerine, or stumble across an interview where Baker explains how it all started, you learn that he had acquired very little knowledge surrounding the transgender sub-culture beforehand and plunged himself into new territory with open eyes with Mya as his passport and channel of insight into it all. Mya asked Baker to show the brutal reality of the streets in Tangerine and to craft it into something that would prompt laughter and I’m sure that if you’ve seen the film you will agree that he does this quite successfully. Kitana also gave a helping hand in offering Baker ongoing advice during the stressful stages of post-production in advising him to remove a musical score from a scene in Donut Time as she apparently felt that it killed the tone. Had Baker observed things from a distance, or approached the topic with a supercilious perspective, it’s likely that Tangerine may have given us a warped view of this micro-community and represented transgender sex workers unfairly. That’s not to say that the action in Tangerine isn’t in any way exaggerated because it is a comedy drama after all. However, you can place confidence in Baker that he has not twisted reality because he worked closely together with Mya and Kitana in making this film, evidently. Tangerine does feel authentic and veracious in its execution.
With characters like Sin-Dee and Alexandra shining with such a big presence in Tangerine, and with its content so engrossing and in your face, it’s easy to forget all the hype surrounding the iPhone technology used to shoot this film and that’s a reassuring sign that Tangerine is not a novelty release or receiving mass attention solely based on this fact alone. However, one thing that this film has done is shown the world that it’s possible to make a feature with an iPhone and a cracking one at that. Tangerine’s storylines are both clever and irresistible with its editing and the music giving the film the sort of urgency and explosiveness that it needed to heighten its impact upon the spectator. It is quite simply a film that presents a very unordinary, and largely absent, love story shared between Sin-Dee and Chester but more so it brings to the forefront a friendship that fails to shatter regardless of hardship and disloyal actions.