By Don Simpson | July 10, 2015
Director: Sean Baker
Writers: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Starring: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karren Karagulian, Mickey O’Hagan, James Ransone, Alla Tumanian, Luiza Nersisyan, Arsen Grigoryan, Ian Edwards, Clu Gulager, Ana Foxx, Scott Krinsky
Shot just beneath the watchful eye of the Hollywood sign, Sean Baker’s Tangerine rebels against just about everything that sign represents while capturing a woefully overlooked Los Angelean subculture with remarkable authenticity. We follow two Black, transgender prostitutes — Sin-dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) — as they traverse the real (not reel) streets of Hollywood. On paper, Tangerine‘s setup has the makings of a seedy exploitation flick. The day is Christmas Eve. Sin-dee has just been released from jail when her best friend Alexandra breaks the news that her pimp-cum-boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone), has been cheating on her. So, Sin-dee embarks upon a meandering quest to track down Chester and his new bitch, a junkie whose name probably starts with the letter “D” (Mickey O’Hagan).
Characters enter and exit the narrative with Donut Time on the corner of Highland and Santa Monica serving as the epicenter of this unexpectedly profound tale. Baker fully immerses us into the intimate world of Sin-dee and Alexandra, transforming Tangerine into an ethnographic study of an oft-ignored subculture. The title subtly references a tangerine air freshener that is used to mask the smell of vomit in a taxi, slyly suggesting that Los Angeles is trying to coverup its unsavory elements, just as Sin-dee and Alexandra shroud the sex of their birth. From Baker’s sympathetic perspective, Tangerine is about Sin-dee and Alexandra’s struggle for survival, whether it be by peddling tricks or paying a bouncer to sing at a bar; all the while, Tangerine encapsulates the necessity of friendships, especially while under the constant threat of violence. That said, Sin-dee and Alexandra are unabashedly free, unhindered by the discrimination that revolves around their identity.
The gritty underbelly of Los Angeles is photographed (on iPhones, no less) with electrically warm tones, as Baker develops a complex visual language, including a comically overcrowded motel brothel and an intimately sudsy car wash. The dialogue is equally brilliant, such as a Cherokee man’s monologue that (seemingly inconsequential at the time) tells the story of a life riddled with a “girl’s name” thanks to cultural traditions. In other words, Tangerine is not the boring, neo-realist, micro-budget film that you might expect; it is remarkably unique, creative, entertaining, and unwaveringly positive.