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Dir. Sean S. Baker
Starring: Kiki Kitana Rodriguez,
May Taylor, Karren Karagulian,
Mickey O'Hagan, James Ransone
By Meraj Dhir
The Film Corner's
Ghee Time Columnist
Evocatively unfolding over twenty-four hours, on a sun-kissed So-Cal Christmas Eve, Tangerine ferrets out the hidden subculture of transgender prostitutes, petty pimps, drug dealers and the johns who frequent them. This third feature by writer-director Sean S. Baker (Prince of Broadway, Starlet) further expands his interest in racially and sexually marginalized characters as it explores a decidedly seedy stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue.
The picture hits the ground running as prostitute Sin-dee Rella (Kiki Kitana Rodriguez) erupts into an unrestrained fury upon her release from a month-long prison stint. When best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) snitches the unwelcome news that Sin-dee's boyfriend/pimp Chester has been cheating on her, the roiling magma is released from its confines, erupting with full ferocity when it's revealed that the target of his attention is not only a white girl, but a “fish” (slang for biological female).
"Like a vagina and everything,” Alexandra squeals.
This results in Sin-dee taking to the streets, with Alexandra in tow, to hook the “fish” whose name they think might be Diana or Dinah or Deena -- and to bust Chester.
The film intercuts this “search and destroy” plotline with the story of taciturn Armenian cab driver, Razmik (Karan Karagulian), as he picks up fares -- each increasingly strange, and oddly, somnolent. While accompanying Sin-dee, Alexandra hands out fliers for a performance she’s giving at a local club later that evening. Alexandra’s nightclub act forms the fulcrum, as well as the midpoint, of the film’s narrative and the catalyst that will ultimately lead to all these characters intersecting.
Tangerine smartly showcases two actual transgendered women playing transgendered characters with both performers contributing considerably to the scripted elements. Baker and his co-writer Chris Bergoch also spent several weeks with real transgendered prostitutes to develop the screenplay.
Certainly not for effete sensibilities, the film features plenty of raw moments and piquant dialogue. For example, Alexandra dissuades her friend on the topic of Chester’s desirability: “His breath smells like he’s been eating ass for days. I mean when I walk into his room it shouldn’t always smell like ‘homeless’ And those socks! Those socks are so black. That’s not a pimp! What do you see in him? Why are you looking for him?”
Another of the film's attributes is that it was entirely shot on a pair of Apple iPhone 5s fitted with newly available anamorphic adapters. The congruence of style and narrative mesh perfectly, producing vivid and pictorially sophisticated results out of sparse technologies. Add real L.A. locations to the mix and Tangerine indeed exudes a rank kitchen sink authenticity.
To contemporary eyes -- growing up watching camera-phone shot videos on YouTube instead of traditional television and film -- the prospect of an entire movie shot with iPhones might seem utterly conventional. But cinematographer Radium Cheung uses the inherent restrictions of the technology, particularly its short focal length lens, to produce inventive and pictorially strident effects.
While it has a verité feel, Tangerine is no dogme film, and is worth seeing on the merits of its camera-work and editing alone. Fluidly arcing tracking shots, crisply cut to the intermittent kick drums and deep baseline of trap music, endows the film with an energy sometimes reaching the kineticism of the Neveldine/Taylor Crank films.
Here though, Baker and Cheung develop something approaching a distinctive iPhone aesthetic. By capitalizing on the fixed wide-angle perspective of the camera and its robust depth of field, they produce classically looming compositions. A face or part of a head often anchors the foreground part of the frame. The distortions created by the wide-angle lens are used to great comic effect.
Gags and events are played out across different planes, through a creative use of deep space. In one scene, Alexandra diverges from Sin-dee to quickly turn a trick for extra cash. Failing to “get-off”, her john reneges on the payment. She charges into him as they both exit off-screen right on the humorous line “You forgot, I got a dick too!”
We then smash into a long-scale shot of Sin-dee interrogating a homeless man about the whereabouts of “Dinah, or Delilah or Dana or whomever.”
The following shot introduces a pair of cops casually minding a corner, then cuts to the camera positioned inside the car, and the windshield clearly framing Alexandra and her john, entangled and still struggling as they slowly drift into view. The film’s use of rhythmic cutting, off-screen and deep space compositions, as well as aperture framing, showcases reliably traditional film craft. The result is a vividly staged, unabashedly humorous and genuinely suspenseful scene.
There’s a visual brilliance on display when the film renders a cab driver giving head to a tranny offscreen, while the cab itself passes through a car wash: the viscous suds, the cloth ribbons that lap away at the wet foam on the windshield, and the jet-stream of water are a clever way to visually and viscerally displace the sexual act occurring just out of our view.
Sin-dee finally locates her quarry in a room chock full of motley figures engaged in all manner of fleshly shenanigans. Sin-dee bursts in and abducts Dinah, proceeding to drag her through what feels like half the city.
The anamorphic format is used throughout for ensemble staging and deep space compositions. Since so much of the performances entails “performing” one’s gender through pose, vocal accent and timbre, and the overall comportment and attitude of one’s body, the film frequently uses long-scale staging of figures to skilled effect.
Tangerine isn’t simply out to shock bourgeois sensibilities with a graphic depiction of tranny prostitutes and the often “straight” men lining up for their services. In fact, the highpoint of the film, Alexandra’s performance at a nightclub, evokes genuine pathos and charm. In an adjacent scene, Sin-dee and Dinah, locked together in a bathroom, share a crack pipe while Sin-dee tenderly applies make-up to her rival’s face.
The latter half of the film suffers from a predictably melodramatic climax where all the characters intersect. These scenes feel staged, like Funny or Die vids, leaving the film’s final attempts to evoke pathos less convincing. And it’s uncertain whether all of this is staged for slapstick or satire. Some audiences may end up bored and chafed as hints of the film’s artifice are revealed.
What’s refreshing about Tangerine, though, is that there’s no sense these characters are on a path to redemption. Neither does the film celebrate their right to a life lived with defiant self-expression. And it’s this neorealist impulse, moments where the characters are allowed to inhabit and interact, borne through solid cinematic craft that makes Tangerine a film that's very much worth seeing.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: **** 4-Stars
Tangerine is playing theatrically via VSC/Magnolia. In Canada, it can be seen at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto and the VanCity Theatre in Vancouver with other playdates to follow. It can also be seen at the Fantasia International Film Festival 2015 in Montreal.