dir: Sean Baker
In all honestly, this movie is like a Tom Waits song from a slightly alternate reality come to vivid, stinking, meth-smoking life.
It’s also one of the most bizarre Christmas related or Xmas-adjacent flicks I’ve ever seen.
Tangerine may seem to be too gimmicky to be taken seriously as a movie, as a ‘serious’ movie, but I think they made something pretty interesting.
If the first gimmick “major release arthouse flick with transgender leads” doesn’t put you off, then the second might: Tangerine was filmed on an iPhone and edited using the kinds of software anyone with a Mac has on their computer but rarely uses. Of course a bunch of stuff has been done to it in post, especially the soundtrack, but also the visuals have been cleared up / colour adjusted.
Technical details aside, Tangerine got a lot of press as it toured the film festival circuit, even playing at Melbourne’s International Film Festival before disappearing upon release. It was always going to be a hard sell outside of a very narrow niche.
Commercial cinema / the ‘marketplace’ is fine with hetero actors playing gay characters or trans characters when it comes to awards and critical plaudits. Hence Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, Michael Douglas in Behind the Candelabra, Jared Leto getting the nod for Rayon in Dallas Buyer’s Club, or Eddie Redmayne getting plenty of award nominations for playing the lead in The Danish Girl. Playing a gay or trans character is like playing anyone with a disability, really, from that perspective. It’s considered an additional level of difficulty, an extra flourish, for only the brave who are craving golden statues.
But they only like it when the actor is fervently, comfortably heterosexual. After they get the award, they tend to have to gruffly get married or impregnate some woman, just to make sure no-one gets the wrong idea about them.
It’s far more disconcerting to the ‘world’ when the character and the actor are actually gay or actually trans. I guess it’s not as much of an achievement when a marginalised actor plays a marginalised role.
Regardless of the amount of money spent on this in post, it really does have the chaotic feel of one of those indie flicks that came out in the 1990s (the era of debut Kevin Smith – Jim Jarmusch – Robert Rodriguez) of what I would call talented amateurism. Clearly whoever was operating the iPhone as cinematographer knew what they were doing, but everything else has a kind of amateurish passion that hopefully papers over any of the deficiencies.
Just to be clear – this flick has nothing to do thematically with any of those ‘landmark’ movies of that hallowed era. Filming it so cheaply means this flick, like the first flicks of those directors at that time, means the flick is kinda like a calling card, as in a statement of intent or talent on the part of the director and the crew. It should probably kick in a few doors for all involved, lets hope.
All the same, this flick is totally fucking bonkers. I’m not even sure what it’s about and I’ve watched it twice.
On the surface it appears to be about one fateful day in the life of two transgender friends called Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor). Sin-Dee is just out of prison, having done a month-long stint for possession, and is being brought up to speed on the various goings-on during her absence by her bestie. The day in question just so happens to be Christmas Eve. This is L.A., though, so it’s not going to be a white Christmas, chestnuts roasting and all that.
The setting for this crazy flick is the scuzziest bits of L.A. that you never get to see because they’re so godawfully scuzzy. There’s the scuzziness you get when a flick with a budget puts together some sets with horribly palpable set designs and such. Then there’s the scuzziness you get just from finding skid row like places and just filming them on your phone.
This might come as some kind of surprise, but Alex and Sin-Dee are not exactly living easy up on the upper echelons of the socioeconomic ladder. They trick for cash, and, in another piece of secret information you never knew you needed to know, the trans working girls have their own region of the city for turning tricks versus the other working girls. And never the twain should meet, lest there be some very awkward arguments.
Sin-Dee is told in no uncertain terms that her beloved drug dealing pimp Chester (James Ransone) somehow was unfaithful during her time inside. I say ‘somehow’ because I’m not sure how any people in this scenario can have any expectations of fidelity, but then I’m a complete ignoramus when it comes to this kind of stuff.
When she finds out that not only was Chester cheating on her, but with a white girl, well, you can understand why she goes both ballistic and on the warpath and is determined to get revenge or at least some kind of satisfaction or at least some money for her troubles.
Well, maybe you can’t, since I wasn’t so sure either. Having nothing to her name, all Sin-Dee has is a righteous burning desire to go yell at her pimp and everyone in her path, and to get revenge on whatever the girl’s name is. Deena? Diana? Dinah? She doesn’t know or care, all she knows is she’s going to fuck her up!
At a guess, I would say that Sin-Dee, even in heels, would barely top 5 feet in height, so it’s not like she’s what security agencies call a “credible threat”. Her ‘rampage’ across the city mostly involves charging up to people and then yelling at them until she gets what she wants or until they feel bad about their clothing or hairstyle choices.
So as Sin-Dee and Alex run around the city looking for Chester, Alex is constantly begging for “no drama”, and handing out flyers for her singing performance scheduled for that very night, while Sin-Dee threatens blue bloody murder.
In a kind of parallel story whose character inevitably will cross paths with the girls, a poor, downtrodden Armenian taxi driver (Karren Karagulian) is looking for Sin-Dee too, though we’re not entirely sure why. Most of the time he’s just driving around taking scummy people various places, and they truly are the worst customers, really horrible people. The worst are two jerks coming from an office party who are horribly drunk and superior, until the inevitable again happens.
His story is less comedic, you could say, in that the poor bastard has a wife and child at home, and an overbearing mother-in-law who seems dead set against him. In a, shall we say stress-relieving scene between the taxi guy and Alex at a car wash, the immediate follow-up has the family man going home to a very low-rent house full of Armenian women doing very Armenian things. He also has a young daughter, so at the very least he seems somewhat confused about what he wants in life.
The most poignant scenes in the flick, and they exist, I assure you, involve this man, sitting in a chair, alone, as chintzy Christmas lights flicker around him. They’re not bringing him a lot of joy, sad to say, and yet they keep on flickering.
That, to me, is the most perfect distillation of the essence of Christmas, right there.
It’s not accurate to describe this as a comedy, I don’t think. There are elements that made me laugh, but while most of it seems to be being played ‘straight’ for lack of a better term, it doesn’t really strike me as a drama either. I don’t know if it even fits into any particular genre. Maybe even slice-of-life cinema verite doesn’t even cover it.
I don’t know what the hell it is, but I do know that I somehow enjoyed it, if in fact the word “enjoy” is the one I meant. Despite its scuzzy setting, and some fairly scuzzy goings-on, the lack of violence or cruelty really appealed to me. There are a few awful things that happen, but they’re fairly tame in comparison. A lot of the time it seems obvious that they’re just filming stuff with ‘regular’ people wandering around not even knowing they’re being filmed. Other than motor-mouthed Sin-Dee and the more reserved Alex, everyone else could easily have just been someone being caught on a candid camera, going about their daily, awful lives. As long as they were paid in crack or meth, they probably wouldn’t have minded either way.
And yet it’s still quite funny and, dare I say it, sweet in equal measure by the time it ends. I really loved the scene where Alex sings her song to an uncaring bar mostly empty of fans, but she’s also the tender heart of the movie, in a lot of ways, as the more thoughtful, more sensitive of the pair. The fact that she paid to sing in the bar makes it even sadder.
The story builds to some kind of farcical high volume high octane climax in a donut shop, for all or most of the characters, which somehow manages to be both irritating and laugh out loud funny, especially with the white-boy antics of the finally tracked down Chester, who is equal parts ridiculous and hilarious.
The real ending, finally, showed me what the point of the flick was, when the lengths that a true friend will go for their friend is painfully and touchingly asserted, as the film ends as it started, with Sin-Dee and Alex talking about stuff, at the end of a really shitty day.
Tangerine is certainly not for everyone. I’m not even sure there’s an audience or demographic for films like this (yet). I don’t think it’s going to replace Miracle on 32nd Street or It’s a Wonderful Life on anyone’s viewing schedule this Christmas, so I wouldn’t fire it up on the Blu-Ray player just after Grandma’s plum pudding is doled out to the masses.
It’s certainly something different. Setting aside that it's the first flick with trans leads to get any mainstream release or press, it remains a truly brash, awkward and great honking landmark of something, but I'm not sure what.
8 times Armenian Christmas seems so much sadder than regular Christmas out of 10
“Merry Christmas, bitch” – that’s the spirit – Tangerine.