The most remarkable thing about Tangerine isn’t the fact that the two lead characters are transgender –although that in itself is a casting win; but what impressed me most was that the entire movie was filmed on a couple of tricked out iPhones.
Adapted from a script by the director Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) are best friends and their snappy dialogue and witty banter keep the pace moving along at a rapid-fire, motor mouth speed.
It’s Christmas Eve on a dirty street in Los Angeles and somewhere in a non-descript coffee shop, the two girls are trading convo over a donut at record speed; the Hollywood sign always in the backdrop divides the glamour of the bright lights and big city against the litter filled streets and boarded up store fronts. Sin-Dee, having just been released from jail, is on a mission to find her boyfriend and pimp Chester (James Ransome), when word on the street gets back to Sin-Dee that Chester hasn’t exactly been faithful while she was on the inside.
What happens next becomes nothing more than a gumball rally race by Sin-Dee and Alexandra to find Chester and get to the bottom of things. It never actually crosses anyone’s mind that cheating is a job requirement of a pimp, so the pursuit begins and is helped along with a thumping beat soundtrack, swooping camera – or iPhone – angles and some quick MTV like edits.
Sin-Dee’s non-stop obsession with finding her pimp is the main force behind the movie, but there are parallel stories happening along the way that intersect in and out of the main storyline. One of the stories is Alexandra’s attempt to get people to see her perform at a local nightclub; chasing Sin-Dee while handing out flyers provides a level of comic relief to this somewhat heavy film.
The second is an Armenian cab driver named Razmik (Karren Karagulian) who likes to frequent transgender sex workers. He becomes incredibly angry when he finds our when one of “his stops” assuming he has found a girl that is his type only to find out she has a vagina.
Tangerine, specifically Sin-Dee, never runs out of colorful adjectives, cleaver continuous dialogue, and gritty L.A. Street scenes giving the film a 93% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Not to say the film doesn’t have issues. The two parallel subplots never quite collide at the end to justify their existence in the movie and a rather violent scene between Sin-Dee and Dinah seems force, over-the-top and somewhat present simply for the sake of violence.
The movie never really delves into any transgender identity and that’s what makes the movie a win for the transgender community. Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch could have just as well cast cisgender actresses for the roles and it wouldn’t have changed the movie one iota, other than Razmik’s Trans fetish – which we all generally disapprove of as a community – and the fact that the movie plays into a stereotypical trans-trope that most transgender women work as sex workers; but these would have been simple script changes that would have never changed the intent of the movie.
The question I always have when it comes to cisgender writers introducing Trans characters into their scripts is “why?” What’s in it for the average cinema goer to suddenly have a Trans character[s] inserted into a movie that could just-as-well as been a cisgender comedic romp? In a word: Transpop.
Hollywood is rushing to feed the transgender merchandising machine to spit out as much trans related content as possible because they believe we are the hot top of the day. Maybe we are, maybe we aren’t, but if we are, then at the very least Hollywood should let us tell our own stories instead of them being told for us. Tangerine is a genuinely fun spontaneous movie that decided to attempt to capitalize on transpop, and honestly, there is nothing wrong with that.
Films rarely show women who are transgender that aren’t sex workers, cartoonish men in dresses, dead hookers or the hot chick with a secret she just has to tell you [after the male character kisses her and does a spittoon.] This fall, two movies that are about transgender characters, About Ray (Elle Fanning) and The Danish Girl (Eddie Redmayne) will hit the theaters with cisgender lead characters playing the roles of Trans women with a collective moan from the trans community. But Tangerine is a standout movie and according to the Hollywood Reporter, the two lead actresses, Kitana and Mya, couldn’t be happier with the outcome and that’s all the promotion I needed to go see it.
Sex, discrimination, exploitation, drugs, and trans-fetishization all make an appearance in the movie and are a constant reminder of a world most of us will never live in. At the end of the day, it’s another buddy on the run movie, only these buddies run in circles protecting each other and proving to the audience that the only love in this movie is between Sin-Dee and Alexandra. All other relationships in the film are just part of the L.A. backdrop and the everyday noise pollution of doing business in the underground.