Directed by: Sean Baker.
Written by: Sean Baker & Chris Bergoch.
Starring: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez (Sin-Dee), Mya Taylor (Alexandra), Karren Karagulian (Razmik), Mickey O'Hagan (Dinah), James Ransone (Chester), Alla Tumanian (Ashken), Luiza Nersisyan (Yeva), Arsen Grigoryan (Karo), Ian Edwards (Nash), Clu Gulager (The Cherokee), Ana Foxx (Selena), Scott Krinsky (Parsimonious John), Chelcie Lynn (Madam Jillian).
Sean Baker’s Tangerine both feels like many other movies, as well as something new and exciting. There’s a little bit of Kenneth Anger or John Waters in its depiction on life on the fringes of society that most people aren’t paying any attention to, a little bit of early Tarantino in all the L.A. locations, that feel like some place the characters of Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction would frequent, a little bit of 1990s DIY Sundance films, and a few other types of films as well. Still, even if the movie does little to hide its inspirations, it does feel like something raw, energetic and totally unique. The film was shot entirely on an iPhone (with some of adapter to get the right aspect ratio), and the colors are as saturated as an old MGM musical (or a Michael Mann film now that I think about it). The storytelling can be sloppy at times – and even at just 95 minutes, the film feels padded and overlong – and the mostly non-professional acting is uneven in spots. But the film works – it pulls the audience along into its own strange little world.
The film opens with Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) in a Donut Shop – and not a chain donut shop either, but something called Donut Time. Both are transgender prostitutes, and Sin-Dee has just been released from a 28-day stretch in jail on Christmas Eve, when Alexandra gives her the bad news. Her pimp/fiancée Chester has been cheating on her the whole time she was in jail – and worse still, with one of natural born female prostitutes. This sets Sin-Dee off on a cross L.A. journey to try and find this woman. Alexandra meanwhile is giving out posters for her singing gig that night to all of their friends – telling them be there at 7 sharp. Then there’s Rasmik (Karren Karagulian) – an Armenian cab driver, with a wife and baby (not to mention a very loud mother-in-law) at home, who frequents the transgender prostitutes in L.A. – and has very particular tastes.
The film mainly plays as a comedy – even when the film gets a little violent - and when Sin-Dee finally finds the woman she’s looking for, Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), its gets violent as she drags the poor woman across all over town, with just one shoe – the film mainly plays it for laughs (whether those scenes are funny or not is open for debate). The ending also has a little bit of a tone problem – as Baker tries to bring all the threads of the plot together in one big scene – a madhouse really, where we finally meet Chester, and everyone else shows up at one spot. This long scene is at once one of the best in the movie – it is remarkable how it sustains its energy throughout what is a long, complicated scene, and one of the more problematic – as things go from comic to serious in the blink of an eye, but the movie never pauses to consider the serious consequences of this scene. As well, the scene adds new information to an already overly complicated sequence.
Still, problems with the storytelling aside, Tangerine mainly works because the characters feel real, and unlike ones you have seen before. They aren’t saints to be sure, but they also aren’t really bad either – meaning they’re just like real people that way. They may do things that are awful – and hurt others without pausing to consider what it means – but they are mainly well-meaning. They feel like those rare movie characters who exist outside of the movie – as if the audience just dropped in on them for a day – their problems had started before the movie, and will continue afterwards.
It’s somewhat surprising to be that co-writer/director Sean Baker is not a first time filmmaker, because Tangerine certainly feels like a debut feature. It has the energy and ambition that first timers often have, coupled with the raggedness of the execution. You can tell there’s a lot of talent here, it just needs to be a little more focuses. Overall, Tangerine works because of the humanity on display – a glimpse into a world that movies rarely attempt to portray – but this one does, and does it well. Baker wasn’t on my radar before – but he is now, and I want to see what he does next.