Donuts and secrets are on the menu this Christmas Eve in Hollywood. In its initial synopsis, Sean Baker’s Tangerine (2015) comes across a touch experimental and niche, “A working girl tears through Tinseltown on Christmas Eve searching for the pimp who broke her heart.” Though, without the slightest tinge of judgment or exaggeration, Baker delivers the realest, thoroughly approachable, heartwarming glimpse around the block, giving us an insight of trans street culture rarely seen on the big screen. Baker employs real transgender actors to portray sex workers of colour breaking the shameful, sizable barriers that exist for this type of representation in film.
Beginning and ending in the immortalized Donut Time on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue, a monument now sadly closed, Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is back on the block from a brief 28-day stint behind bars. Her best friend’s slip of the tongue in the first few minutes fuels her wild rampage that drives the bulk of the plot. Alexandra (Mya Taylor) accidently reveals the infidelities of Sin-Dee’s boyfriend, and pimp, since she’s been gone. On a mission of vengeance and retribution, Sin-Dee storms in and out of varying spots in search of the white “fish” (cisgender female) involved with her fiancé Chester (James Ransone), with the only other clue that her name starts with a “D… Danielle, Desiree, Dee-Dee”. Sin-Dee’s reckless pursuit is scored with Soundcloud-sourced trap music that pumps up the mood and establishes an exhilarating opening to say the least.
These distinct and fiercely individual protagonists each have their own temperament and agenda.
Precarious yet endearing, Sin-Dee is a whirlwind of energy and fury amidst clear vulnerability, naivety and heartache. Meanwhile, the seemingly more levelheaded and reasonable Alexandra aims to keep Sin-Dee in check as she tirelessly hands out flyers to anyone and everyone on the block for her evening performance at a nightclub. In between playful banter and sass, this dynamic pair protects and clings to one another while trying to hustle and survive on the streets of LA.
Kept a secret until the film’s premiere at Sundance, Tangerine was shot entirely on an iPhone5S. Shattering not only casting conventions, but also filmography standards, Baker gives hope and encouragement to other aspiring filmmakers working within similar financial constraints and limited resources. As the epitome of DIY low-budget indie, Baker proves this technique to be invaluable and truly affective. The memorable saturated colour-editing, or lack of, filled with purple and orange hues more typical of Broadway shows, musical sets and shoddy Instagram filters, is presumably where the title derives.
Tangerine remains relatively novel in its blunt subject matter, but even more so in its delivery and cleverly interlaced paralleled plotlines. A partially connected subplot involves an Armenian taxi driver, Razmik (Karren Karagulian), who works in the same neighbourhood and has his own web of secrets and lies bound by very specific interests and tastes. His connection and purpose within the plot is gradually revealed while character development and neighbourhood depth is established. His unmasking goes down in the Donut Time the second time around jeopardizing the solidity and future of his family.
It remains unclear whether or not the white fish that Sin-Dee finally locates from a brothel-type situation and drags out barefoot in pajamas through the streets now in search of Chester, is the right “D”. Regardless, she knows the block and its inhabitants, Chester and the story, well enough to contribute provocative commentary and one-liners to entertain Sin-Dee and her cause. The violence and aggression that Sin-Dee imposes on her is a bit uncomfortable and questionable, and it seems improbable that no passersby intervened in these public displays.
Amidst moments of anxiety and desperation, humour and parody, exist larger themes of friendship and betrayal, commitment and dedication, alongside questions of identity and truth. This traditional, run of the mill plotline surrounding the complicated relationships of best friends and boyfriends, husbands and wives and mothers-in-law, adopts a very different take and a definite twist, with a modest and moral ending.
Tangerine deserves attention not just because it was shot on an iPhone 5S but because of its fresh, relevant and respectful approach to this type of storytelling. Not to mention, the astute and vibrant acting hones much of its success. The range in performances allows these characters to move through their world with confidence and ease all the while dodging hate-crimes, poverty and discrimination.
Despite the seriousness of some of the scenes and their subject-matter, drugs, sex and infidelity, the tone remains light-hearted and hopeful with clear “feel good movie” elements. Without taking cues from other genres or forms, Baker’s characters are free to be as they are in this loose, ill-defined structure and plot bringing an endearing confidence and warmth to trans culture and the hard-done streets of LA, crafting a pop culture and mainstream end product.
Throughout, you can’t help but wonder if this is a typical day in the life on the block or a Christmas Eve anomaly? Are their lives and their stories really that much different than all of the others so often depicted on screen? Do their highs and lows, hopes, dreams, fears and regrets not resemble our own? Afterall, aren’t we all just trying to survive – trying to be understood, trying to love and be loved in return?