By Sarah Druhan
Photo: The New York Times – Source
Sean Baker’s 2015 film Tangerine made waves when it premiered at Sundance, and maintains a sturdy relevance even now. This hysterically funny but quietly realistic buddy comedy about two trans sex workers and their LA red-light district misadventures is at once brutally funny, stubbornly honest, and ahead of its time in terms of trans representation. In fact, almost everything represented on this film’s screen feels sharply and proudly unorthodox: its main characters are not the middle-class white people mainstream comedy has accustomed us to, but instead represent a range of bodies and identities that are rarely explored onscreen. And the Los Angeles of Tangerine is ruled not by the expected crisp Hollywood glamour, but rather by garish neon and the relentless amber of a Southern California sun, soaking every scene in its glare until it feels almost tangible.
Tangerine revolves around the people who live just out of reach from the fabled ‘City of Stars’, but also the reality of who the mainstream culture of the upper class has chosen to leave behind. It’s the story of a city—and a larger society—that pushes certain identities to the outskirts, but also the joy that can be found in marginalized groups and marginalized environments. “Los Angeles is a beautifully wrapped lie,” a character says at one point; the film devotedly explores what happens underneath that wrapping, in a place where the idealized gold of Southern California bleeds to a harder but more realistic tangerine.
Tangerine firstly garnered a lot of attention for being entirely shot on iPhone, further situating the film in its firmly not-upper-class sphere. An $8 app was used to monitor the cinematography’s focus and color temperatures; in contrast to most social realist movies Baker and his team pumped as much color and saturation as possible into their shots of this LA red-light district, giving a dynamic vibrancy to this underbelly world that was purposely hard to ignore.
Just as the cinematography sizzles and pops, neither will the trans women of color at the movie’s forefront allow their identities to be stifled. The rapid-fire hilarity of Kitana Kiki Rodriguez’s Sin-Dee shines in her gloriously chaotic romp around downtown Los Angeles as she hunts down the prostitute her pimp boyfriend Chester slept with, demanding details from street encounters and kicking down brothel doors. Mya Tyler’s put-upon Alexandra throws out sarcastic remarks, holding her head regally high even as she performs songs for a mostly empty bar. Baker reportedly met the two by a downtown LA LGBT Center and instantly picked up on their effortless chemistry; he based the script mostly off real-life stories from the two women and encouraged them to improvise as much as possible. The movie finds much of its strength in how it invites these women’s authentic identities to bloom, proving the magic that can be found in representing groups that Hollywood would rather push to the margins.
The narrative of Tangerine also weaves in Razmik, a married Armenian cab driver who frequently solicits the business of trans sex workers, as well as Dinah, the prostitute Chester slept with who is dragged barefoot around the California streets by Sin-Dee for the latter half of the movie. As all characters slowly descend on the Santa Monica bakery Donut Time—Sin-Dee, Alexandra and Dinah to find Chester, Razmik to solicit Sin-Dee, Razmik’s mother-in-law to prove he is cheating on her daughter, and subsequently Razmik’s wife and daughter—the film builds to a frantically funny climax, balancing out its many tensions with Alexandra and Sin-Dee’s sharp one-liners and Chester’s exaggerated behavior.
Many other movies might have wrapped it up shortly after this time-bomb of a showdown. But again, this is one of the lines Tangerine walks best: undergirding its outrageous elements with a subtly authentic realism that does justice to its characters and its subject matter. In the wake of the donut shop sequence’s tense hilarity, all of the characters drift like flotsam back to their own realities. Razmik returns home to sit numbly alone under the same roof as his defeated wife and his disgusted mother-in-law. Alexandra pursues Sin-Dee after Chester reveals Alexandra also slept with him, but Sin-Dee ignores her and looks for potential clients. Dinah walks to a nearby brothel to find business before being turned away. Even after the events of Tangerine, these women can’t afford to rest; their lives depend on the next bit of cash, the next moment. And even as Dinah slumps on the brothel’s stoop, homeless for the night, and Sin-Dee gets a cup of urine and transphobic slurs thrown at her, they react with feelings of resignation. These characters aren’t just here to entertain the audience. This is their reality, and things like this tragically couldn’t seem more normal to them. For the film to pretend otherwise would be disrespectful.
The movie concludes on an uncharacteristic moment of quiet as Sin-Dee grudgingly lets Alexandra help her after being attacked. This ending offers no real feeling of resolution—after all, our world’s treatment of trans women of color won’t disappear once Tangerine’s credits roll. But despite the difficulty of their situation, we still get the feeling we are watching something sacred. Alexandra lends Sin-Dee her own wig to replace Sin-Dee’s damaged one, a moment that seems inconsequential but clearly means everything to be both of them. Sin-Dee reluctantly finally smiles as the two friends join hands. The clear love that the characters (and likely the actresses themselves) have for each other is so tangible that this ending becomes more powerful than any epic blockbuster finale.
Tangerine solidifies itself as a hallmark of trans representation by acknowledging that for women like Sin-Dee and Alexandra, community is everything. They cannot prevent themselves from the dangers trans women of color struggle against every day, but they have each other, against the awful of it all. The two may be forced to constantly live their lives moment to moment. But, at least for now, this one moment is enough.