Set against the sun-stained skies of Los Angeles, Sean Baker’s latest offering continues his taste for challenging yet unavoidable plot lines. In Tangerine, we’re on the streets with Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), two transgender prostitutes who’s dazed but directed lives see them slip seamlessly between working the streets and owning the streets. Sin-Dee is fresh out of jail and straight back on the war path, trying to find her unfaithful pimp boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone). As the film swings and chases after Sin-Dee, trying hard to keep up with her fantastic pace, Baker reveals the harsher contexts in which prostitutes operate. Violence, misogyny and fickleness are everywhere, controlling our protagonists’ sexualised lives.
It’s Christmas Eve too, although you wouldn’t know it, and the scorching sun and lack of any ‘festive spirit’ in the characters helps to develop one of the key elements of Tangerine. The film deals explicitly in challenging conventions, and this burning hot Hollywood Christmas is just the first of them. Scenes depicting brothels filled with OAPs, and car-washes as alternatives to curb-crawling are further examples of this. But it is the issue of gender that is really examined in this thrilling, lavish film. Essentially, Tangerine depicts how the men using these prostitutes, are in effect engaging in intriguingly subverted concepts of gender in which the only way they can indulge their homoerotic desires is through pretending the men are women. As the mother-in-law of one such man quips, it is simply, much like Christmas in Hollywood, a “beautifully-wrapped lie”.
However, cut finely between Sin-Dee’s relentless quest, Baker’s eye for implication, for the reverberations of actions and words, comes to the fore. Early on, we join Razmik (Karren Karaguilan), a seemingly incongruous character, in his taxi as he drives Hollywood’s assorted rabble, each one searching for their own fix. These scenes are initially a step back from the main narrative and are a real pleasure to watch, Karaguilan’s naturally sensitive portrayal contrasting effectively with the gushing, drunken Hollywood locals in the back of his cab. If one of Baker’s aims in making Tangerine was to illuminate the intricacies that link lives together, then he achieves this most notably through the relationship between Razmik and Alexandra, the hard-working family-man and the fickle prostitute struggling with issues of sexual identity. In time, we realise that these roles are actually reversed, but, as the gorgeously-shot Hollywood sun finally sets on this unlikely couple, Baker’s objective is realised. Human lives rarely abide by the expectations we have of them, and through his depiction of prostitution’s infiltration of unlikely lives, Baker succeeds in revealing what is true of most of us: our lives aren’t as linear as we wish they were.
As if this brilliantly fresh narrative wasn’t enough, its depiction on-screen tips it into that category of films which both look and sound great. How was this achieved? The iPhone 5s, that’s how – the entire film was shot using them. Capturing something so big on something so insignificant epitomises Tangerine, a film in which a lot is revealed by a little.
Image: Magnolia Films/filmlinc.org