Tangerine Dir. Sean Baker

[Magnolia Pictures; 2015]

Styles: slice of life, LGBT, hero’s journey
Others: Kids, Wassup Rockers, Pink Flamingos, Sissy Bounce videos

Now is the perfect moment for Tangerine. This, not because its stars are transgender, nor because it was shot on iPhones, nor because it’s set in Los Angeles at a time when New York is trying to send its “creative class” yuppie refuse westward via glowing (yet still insulting) pieces about the city in the New York Times. This all might play into it, I guess, but whatever it is, Tangerine just feels like right now. It feels like millennial fixations on 90s fashion and art, like Big Freedia videos, like “post-racial” insensitivity, like information overload, like double birds flying towards both the hate-mongering right and the patronizing left. It’s frenetic and frustrating, sympathetic and sensational. It’s obnoxious as fuck, it’s hilarious and sad, and I’m pretty sure it’s great.

Though it will be expected to take on the burden of representing both trans people and sex workers, Tangerine shrugs off any responsibility to be a crusader. It has nothing to prove, and meets nobody halfway: if you don’t feel for these characters as they are, the film seems to say, that’s your own problem. Like previous movies-of-their-moment, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll always like the characters with whom you’re asked to sympathize (who was the hero in Pink Flamingos, or in Kids?): Sin-Dee (Kiki Kitana Rodriguez), Tangerine’s ostensible protagonist, is rude, unreasonable, and violent; though she has undoubtedly suffered at the hand of many, much of her pain is self-inflicted and self-perpetuating. Sin-Dee’s relatively stable best friend and partner in crime Alexandra (Mya Taylor) turns out not to be all she’s cracked up to be; an Armenian cab driver (Karren Karagulian) who initially comes off as a reluctant white knight is slowly shown to be as flawed and confused as anyone. These characters are all sympathetic, but they’re also all totally fucked up in their own ways — or, to put it more generously, they’re all human. In fact, Tangerine makes neither monster nor martyr out of any of its characters, from the cackling home-wrecker (Mickey O’Hagan) who spends most of the film as Sin-Dee’s main adversary to the Eminem-lite pimp (James Ransone) who hilariously tries to weasel his way back into Sin-Dee’s good graces.

For all of its bending of both technical and social barriers, though, at its heart Tangerine isn’t all that unconventional. Its fabulous and gritty details hang on a generic “hero’s journey” frame (with Sin-Dee in the Luke Skywalker role), and there’s an overarching message about the power of friendship. There’s even a happy ending. Much has been made of the film being shot on iPhones, but (though my filmmaker nerd girlfriend might disagree) one hardly notices the difference: the phones were retrofitted with prototype anamorphic lenses, and the footage was heavily processed in post to give the film an itchy, high-contrast look which, while unusual, is hardly janky. Regardless of all this, though, something special is at work here, beyond that which can be easily publicized.

At one point, one of the film’s antagonists calls Los Angeles “a beautifully wrapped lie,” and it’s not hard to see, from that character’s perspective, how the trans sex workers on the city’s street corners are the ultimate manifestation of that. It’s a toxic attitude, of course, not just because of what it implies about a certain group, but because Los Angeles and its people are as real as anything else, and just as worthy of empathy and respect no matter how much glitz is caked on their surface. Tangerine’s moral core is based on laying this dichotomy, between “common decency” and true kindness, out bare for all to see. The only way one can truly be an enemy is to refuse to look.

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