When “Tangerine” was shown at the Sundance Film Festival early in last year, this low-budget independent film drew lots of attention for not only what it was about but also how it was made. The movie is certainly interesting for its unconventional story subject, and it is all the more commendable considering that the movie does not look that shabby even though it was actually shot by three smartphones. While it is not entirely without flaws, its raw realism and authentic sense of people and location are admirable to say the least, and that is why it can function as a vivid window into the daily life of its interesting human characters to watch.
After the deliberately old-fashioned main title, we are introduced to Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), two transgender sex workers operating in a neighborhood area of Hollywood, California. Having just been released on Christmas Eve after finishing her 28-day jail sentence, Sin-Dee is glad to have a talk with her close friend at some donut shop in their neighbourhood, and we get to know a bit about them as listening to their conversation.
During their conversation, Alexandra mentions that Chester (James Ransone), a guy who is Sin-Dee’s pimp and current boyfriend, has been cheating on Sin-Dee since she went to jail. Instantly becoming furious about this, Sin-Dee decides to take care of this matter for herself, and Alexandra reluctantly joins her friend’s search for a cisgender girl who gets involved with Chester, though she is more occupied with her upcoming evening performance.
Observing Sin-Dee and Alexandra going around their neighborhood here and there, the movie gives us an engaging anthropological presentation of their small world which is quite unfamiliar to most of us. We frequently meet other transgender sex workers on the streets, and there are also other different characters including a small-time drug dealer, a duo of police officers, and a group of cisgender prostitutes working at a seedy place.
While the sense of tough life is palpable on the screen, the movie is buoyed by its vibrant visual style and irrepressible personality, and it is remarkable that the director/co-writer Sean Baker, who also produced and edited his film besides working as the co-cinematographer along with Radium Cheung, succeeds in making a slick, competent work which does not look deficient at all in technical aspects. While he chose to shoot his film with three iPhone 5s smartphones due to his tight production budget amounting only to $100,00, his smartphones equipped with anamorphic lens, a $8 video app, and Steadicam produced the result a lot better than you might think. Although its several scenes understandably look rough, the movie mostly looks fine and clear with occasionally striking color scheme on the screen, and this level of visual quality is maintained well even during the evening scenes later in the movie.
And it surely helps that two heroines of the movie are played by real transgender actresses. Before being cast for the movie via a happy coincidence, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor actually worked as street workers probably not so far from Sin-Dee and Alexandra, and they certainly bring a considerable amount of authenticity and truthfulness to their respective roles as non-professional performers.
I have no idea on how much their performances are based on their life experiences, but Rodriguez and Taylor are terrific as complementing each other on the screen. Brash and tempestuous at times, Sin-Dee is certainly not someone we can like easily, but Rodriguez imbues her character with humanity and dignity, so we come to respect Sin-Dee’s gender identity as well as her personality. Sin-Dee can be very harsh especially when she finally meets the girl she is looking for, but she can also be nice and generous, and there is an unexpected moment of hazy tenderness as she and two other characters happen to be together within a small place.
Ably supporting her co-star, Mya Taylor, who deservedly received several awards including the Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Female for the film, is the voice of common sense in the movie. While Sin-Dee simply lives her life day by day, Alexandra has aspired to a singer career even though there is not much possibility for her out there, and there is a poignant moment when she sings in front of a few audiences including her friend. Life disappoints her again, but she does not let herself daunted by that at least, and we cannot help but smile as listening to her singing.
The screenplay written by Baker and his co-writer Chris Bergoch is not without problems to notice, and the most prominent one is involved with Razmik (Karren Karagulian), an Armenian taxi driver who turns out to be a longtime customer of Sin-Dee and Alexandra. While Karagulian is fine as a man who is not very honest to himself as well as his family, his character’s subplot feels like coming from a different kind of movie, and the climax scene involved with him and other characters approaches to the realm of sitcom although it is intended to be funny.
Nevertheless, the emotional power and technical prowess of “Tangerine” remain intact despite its noticeable imperfect sides, and I was particularly touched by the last scene between Sin-Dee and Alexandra. Regardless of whatever will happen to them, these ladies will keep going on together – and you will never forget them after the movie is over.