By Ali Bush '19
Tangerine (2015) is a red-hot and unforgivingly human depiction of the dubious underworld of the sex trade in present-day Los Angeles. As the lives of prostitutes and pimps unwind on the hot asphalt of West Hollywood, you are sure to be shocked and left dazed, yet entertained and moved. Director Sean Baker makes bold move after bold move in this extremely low-budget, Sundance Festival-nominated film. The film’s protagonists, two black transgender women, Sindee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) romp the streets of Hollywood, tracking down unfaithful boyfriends and hoping for a glimpse at fame. Not only does this film unapologetically depict the sordid life of sex workers in a dark subculture of Los Angeles, but it does so in a way that is all at once touching and tough, hilarious and bittersweet.
The plot of Tangerine is simple, but the beauty of the movie is in the intertwined stories, which are both humorous and appalling, acted out by an extremely realistic cast of characters. The stories of these unsavory characters ironically take place on Christmas Eve, when protagonist Sindee has just been released from jail. She fiercely scours the sidewalks of Hollywood searching for her unfaithful boyfriend and the “other woman.” It turns out that the other woman, Dinah, (Mickey O’Hagan) is a prostitute who is everything she is not: white, innocent, and assigned female at birth. When the two meet at a scumbag motel, Sindee drags Dinah all over the streets of LA. What starts as a shockingly violent parade through the impoverished streets of West Hollywood, ends as an unexpectedly touching night out on the town. Sindee and Dinah hilariously bicker over men and make-up, as Alexandra attempts to calm the both of them and advance her singing career in a local night club. Both women’s lives intertwines with that of Razmick, an Armenian taxi driver living out the normal American Dream. He purchases a house, supports his extended family, and appears to be a loving father, but he also has a sinister craving for Sindee and Alexandra’s company. The characters’ lives all hilariously and climatically collide in the final scene, where every character is brought together in a slimy donut shop and forced to face their flaws and sins under the glare of fluorescent lights.
Filmed solely on iPhones, this film’s jagged camera work seems to depict the lives of reality television stars, not the charades of the underworld of sex workers. But the bounces and imperfections in the camera work creates the perfect mood as the viewer tries to physically and mentally keep up with the wacky and high energy characters we meet along the way. Set to rave music and dizzily fasted-paced, Baker avoids pitying these characters’ lifestyles, and rather truthfully conveys the humanity and complexities of this particular time and community in Los Angeles.
Although the film only scrapes the surface of the two women’s transgender identities, it digs deeply into the two protagonists’ friendship. Despite the sordid and often dejected lives that the two women lead, Rodriguez and Taylor depict their characters with resilience and dignity. The women’s stories are disreputable yet touching, and these unexpected protagonists share surprisingly universal human stories about love, jealousy, friendship and letdown. Tangerine is a genius and fresh take on extremely real stories delivered in a surprisingly captivating way. I have no doubt that Tangerine is a film unlike any you’ve seen before.