Starring: Katana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, James Ransome, Mickey O’Hagan, Karren Karagulian
Director: Sean S. Baker
Sometimes, filmmakers struggle to ensure that something that looks edgy is also entertaining. Experimenting cinematically often leads to a dilution of the narrative, or a choice of style over substance. The same cannot be said about Tangerine. While a transgender revenge comedy sounds like it should be a tacky Logo production, or a YouTube clip by Todrick Hall, it is instead a rough-cut diamond with a tight plot, vibrant characters and an ambitious high-spec, especially considering it was all shot on iPhones… which is, in itself, testament to the capability of this “crude” technology.
Sin-Dee (Rodriguez) is a transgender sex-worker who has just been released from a short stay in prison on Christmas Eve. Meeting her friend Alexandra (Taylor), she learns that her boyfriend/pimp (Ransone) has been cheating on her with a cisgender woman (O’Hagan). Furious, Sin-Dee heads out to hunt down her boyfriend and exact revenge for his indiscretion. Meanwhile, Armenian taxi driver Razmik (Karagulian) encounters Alexandra and becomes enchanted by her. Trying to see her again, he has to elude the suspicions of his mother-in-law, who sets out to find out where he goes when driving late at night.
What results is a classic farce, populated with the most unconventional of characters. Los Angeles appears as a weary urban jungle, about as unfestive as a Pound Stretcher in February, whose landmarks are the fast-food restaurants and motels. With the camera trailing the characters around the city, it uses the entrances, windows and stoops to tease out the farcical comedy of a character’s ill-timed entrance, or the drama of a sudden departure. The film’s protagonists are boldly colourful and this seeps down into the structure and style of the film, with brash camera angles that are sometimes elaborately complex, snappy dialogue that is darkly comic and a narrative that displays a multifarious attention to comic genre detail.
At its heart, Sin-Dee and Alexandra are vibrantly empathic, whose mile-a-minute speech and sometimes indecipherable slang are as endearing as they are astonishing. They inhabit this world so believably because Rodriguez and Taylor are of this world themselves. Because this is a grass-roots project, developed with the actresses on the streets of LA. Neither have previous acting experience, but in serving a slice of their world, they are street-smart, chic and in their element. But make no mistake, their terrain is cruel and unforgiving and it is in its sparing moments of restraint and humanity that Tangerine delivers its most impact.
This is a story about friendship, more than a story about revenge. The central duo share a compelling bond, which gives the film its recognisable heart. As unconventional as these characters are, or as brassy as their behaviour is, this bond anchors the story within a human experience that everyone can recognise: sisterhood, friendship and compatriotism. Behind the lashes, makeup and glossy weaves; behind the attitude, slang and cultural specificity, this comedy is as thematically universal as its façade is elementally particular. Essentially, Sin-Dee and Alexandra are the elaborate cherries sitting on top of a very well-crafted but familiar cake. And who doesn’t love a new spin on a familiar classic?
Available to download, stream or buy on DVD.