"Tangerine," which premiered at Sundance in late January, has received a good amount of attention since then, primarily because the entire thing was shot on an iPhone 5S. While the iPhone cinematography is impressive, I was more struck by the unusually realistic and humanistic depictions of the two main characters and the world in which they live.
The comedy set on Christmas Eve follows best friends Sin-Dee (played by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) through one full day in their lives as transgender women of color doing sex work in Hollywood.
The film goes far outside of the usual media tropes about transgender women. First of all, the stars are actually trans women. And there are no scenes of them getting dressed for the day, plaintively putting on wigs and makeup. Instead, the film centers on the deep and complicated friendship between the two.
While the trailer tries to present "Tangerine" as a raucous comedy, the moments of humor are also tempered by the violence and hardship that many transgender sex workers face: poverty, jail time, mistreatment by johns and jerks on the street, racism, transphobia, drug abuse. But it’s not an altogether sad story, either, and it ends with a inspiring note on the importance of chosen family in surviving the above-mentioned challenges.
The director of "Tangerine" is Sean Baker, a white cisgender man. The background on the flimmaking reveals how someone totally outside the world he depicts was able to create such a seemingly realistic portrayal. Baker met Taylor, who is black, at a branch of the Los Angeles LGBT Center in L.A. The Alexandra character came out of their discussions. Then Taylor introduced Baker to her friend Rodriguez, a Latina first-time actress, and the seed of"Tangerine" was sown.
“Kiki and Mya said realism was extremely important to them—they wanted to show what life was like for women who work that area,” Baker has said in a press statement. “But they also wanted it to be fun, a movie that they’d want to watch. So I wanted to try [something] a little different, tonally, because I thought that approaching this film the way I’ve approached my other films—in a voyeuristic, observational style—would not be the right way to do this. I wanted to change styles a little bit and find a way to allow the audience to participate in the chaos of the characters’ lives.”
"Tangerine" also brings the viewer into relationship with the people Sin-Dee and Alexandra encounter in their day-to-day: The relatively benevolent Armenian cab driver, Rasmik, who is married with children but a client of the women; the white pimp, Chester, who is also Sin-Dee’s fiancee; the white cisgender sex worker that Sin-Dee targets after hearing she’s been sleeping with Chester; the Asian donut shop owner who Chester calls "Mamasan;" and the police officers, white and Latino, that the women interact with.
It’s these interactions between racial groups, culminating in a frenzied scene where all of the main characters collide, that also make "Tangerine" stand out. Sin-Dee makes fun of Rasmik and his mother-in-law’s accent and language. The Asian donut shop owner repeatedly threatens to call the police. Rasmik’s family members say disparaging and transphobic things about Sin-Dee and Alexandra to one another in Armenian. Chester insults everyone.
Rodriguez has mentioned that scene in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter: "My favorite scene is when all the characters meet up at the end. It’s a riot and full of diversity. It’s full of life and full of what people do when they’re in a group of people who they are not used to being around. It’s a real-life scenario, like being at the airport, but so politically incorrect. That’s life."
The film has received some criticism for reinforcing the stereotype of transgender women as sex workers, but to this Taylor and Rodriguez had strong retorts in their interview: "I would say fuck them," said Taylor. "I would say it’s realistic," Rodriguez said, "and if you don’t like it, then when you see it you’re going to want to change it (snaps fingers)."
The best part of the film is that it really is just about these two women’s friendship. Yes, they are transgender, yes, they make a living through the street economy and sex work, and yes they are women of color. But at the end of the day, they’re just trying to love and support one another through the messiness that is life.
"Tangerine" will be in select theatres across the country (check your local listings) through September and will debut on iTunes and cable video-on-demand on November 1.