You know how it is. It’s Christmas Eve, you’re a transgender prostitute fresh out of lock-up and looking to turn a trick out where Santa Monica meets Highland, when all of a sudden your girlfriend (who’s playing a show tonight singing at some dive or other) lets slip that your boyfriend and pimp has been stepping out on you while you were inside. Some scrawny piece of white trash whose name begins with a ‘D’ or something. Man, what is a girl to do?
Last year, around Christmas, I put together a little piece on alternate yuletide viewing. You could absolutely add Tangerine to the list; a ramshackle, rough-n-ready independent feature that charges out of the gate, upending festive expectations. It’s rather like pulling a cracker and finding a butt plug and some mescaline inside. Anyone waiting for Santa Claus to show up ought to adjust their expectations accordingly.
Meet Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), the two transgender hookers in question. We meet them gossiping over a doughnut (singular), and Tangerine‘s director Sean Baker immediately establishes the energetic, gaudy aesthetic that he’ll perpetuate for the garish 88 minutes ahead. This mini-odyssey through LA’s less reputable districts is like a piece of graffiti scrawled on the more mannered expectations for yuletide cinema. Indeed it’s festive setting is in itself merely decoration; an added bonus that allows for some comedic swipes at the general generosity (or lack of) in a neighbourhood that’s dog-eat-dog 365 days a year.
It is Sin-Dee who goes berserk at the rumour that their pimp Chester (James Ransone) may have been unfaithful to her. Alexandra is swept along in the action as Sin-Dee struts across town looking for the ‘skank’ in question. Concurrently, we also follow gay taxi driver and family man Raznik (Karren Karagulian), contending with backseat pukers (a character named, wait for it, Retch Chunder) and misleading newcomers hooking naively on the trans strip. These stories skirt one another gracefully (if Tangerine can be called graceful), until they ultimately collide at the film’s clamorous final showdown, a scene as delicate and nuanced as a ruck on The Jerry Springer Show.
But that shouldn’t belittle what Baker has achieved here. The finale is entirely fitting to a film that celebrates lives on the fringes of conservative society. Does Tangerine mock its characters? Only as much as they caustically mock each other. More often his film feels refreshingly free of judgement. All characters are humbled by their basic humanity here, failures of character being a valid part of that equation. This is a comedy, one that occasionally plays for shock value, but one senses great love both behind and in front of the camera.
Said camera is an iPhone 5s. Baker shot the entire film on one with a clip-on anamorphic lens. This has become as much part of the buzz surrounding Tangerine as it’s quirky, in-your-face content. It’s as if, impatient of waiting for his peers to end their argument over digital vs film, Baker left the room and started fucking shit up his own way. As low-budget filmmaking goes, however, this is about as kinetic as it gets. Yes, there’s a very rough feel to everything, but that adds to the heady aesthetic of the picture. The colour palette glows, sickly. Yellows pop especially. But Baker captures an odd romanticism in the sprawl of urban toxicity. In fact what’s remarkable is how much sunbleached beauty Baker manages to convey. The framing here can accentuate the grotesque, but it can also be quite delicately pleasing.
In addition, Tangerine benefits from a great sense of motion, an added benefit of having a handheld camera that can respond to gestures minute as a tilt of the wrist. Alexandra and Sin-Dee are almost always in transit, either together or separately, and the light, buoyant motion of the film compliments this perfectly. Add to that the jumble of musical styles that make-up the soundtrack and you’re whisked through the movie as though any form of inertia is a crime. There’s a carnivalesque atmosphere in play here. It’s not madcap, but it does buzz with a sense of continual activity.
The DIY trappings may suggest an amateur film, but really this is quite an accomplished slice of chaos. Resources are mined for all their worth. The film’s greatest success is making this all look so easy, like happenstance. In Taylor and Rodriguez, Baker has also secured one of the comedy pairings of the year. Both are impeccable and immeasurably entertaining. Tangerine is a tacky, garish antidote to sanitised, stiffly organised yuletide cheer. A modestly glorious one. It might not suit all occasions and one tawdry tour might be enough, but it sure puts a boot to the idea of complacency in contemporary cinema.