Tangerine (2015)

Director: Sean S. Baker
Writers: Sean S. Baker & Chris Bergoch
Cast: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, James Ransone, Mickey O’Hagan, Karren Karagulian.

I’ve been really looking forward to watching this movie since I first heard about it. Tangerine garnered a lot of attention on the festival circuit and even recently was rewarded with a few nominations for the Gotham Awards, which recognize independent filmmaking and stories that otherwise wouldn’t be noticed. A lot of praise has especially been focused on the film’s two stars: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor.

As we progress as a society towards more acceptance of sexualities and identities that have previously been muted and suppressed, there is still a lot of erasure happening at all levels, with only a couple of voices being allowed to speak at a time. When it comes to the transgender community, most representations historically have been degrading and damaging. If a transgender character were introduced in film or television it was either to ridicule or punish. Worse yet, transgendered people have not been allowed in many cases to tell their own stories. Films like Dallas Buyers Club and Transamerica or the forthcoming The Danish Girl, and television shows like Glee, employed cisgendered actors to depict the trans experience. Only a very small handful of actors have had the opportunity to portray members of the community they belong to, such as Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black), Alexis Arquette (who was credited simply as “Tranny” when she appeared in Lords of Dogtown) or Candis Cayne (Dirty Sexy Money). Recently Netflix’s Sense8 did a superior job in its showcasing of trans actress Jamie Clayton. With the exception of Cox, all these women are white. Even within the trans community there is a divide which privileges white people, and this has very real effects as trans women of color suffer from horrific persecution and are consistently victims of violence. More than 20 trans women of color have been murdered so far this year alone.

Tangerine is an innovative and groundbreaking movie. Aside from the fact that its two main actresses are trans women of color, the film features an entire subplot spoken in Armenian (and at least the version that I saw didn’t feature subtitles). The film was also entirely shot using iPhones. The very definition of low budget. In spite of the low budget and the casting of mostly first time actors, the film works.

The movie opens on Christmas Eve with Cin-Dee (Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Taylor) chatting at a diner. Cin-Dee has just gotten out of jail and is catching up with her friend. Over the course of the conversation it comes out that Cin-Dee’s boyfriend, Chester (Ransone), has been cheating on her with a girl named Dinah (O’Hagan). Rodriguez takes the news badly, especially because Dinah is “real fish”, a naturally born woman. Immediately Cin-Dee begins to scour the Los Angeles neighborhood for information about this girl who has taken her man, who is also her pimp and a low-level drug dealer. Alexandra in the meantime works the streets so that she can make some money to pay a venue so that she can perform later in the evening. All the while an Armenian taxi driver (Karaguilan) drives around L.A. and eventually meets up with Alexandra, and the two have one of their regular transactions.

The first third of the film is over the top and a bit strident, but once Cin-Dee finds Dinah the film hits its stride and becomes a truly enjoyable and engaging story. The laughs come often and most jokes land. The vibrant colors of L.A. and its sunset (the color of which lends the title to the movie) paint the film with a quasi-sickly and overly saturated quality. The film successfully tells the story of an underbelly of American society that rarely is exposed, one in which prostitution, poverty, drugs are normal – but the film refuses to make these its focus (unlike a movie like Spun, which did nothing else). Instead, this is the story of a community, a story especially of friendship, and it is extremely well made and acted. The movie is a success and deserves an audience; hopefully more awards will come that will shed an even brighter orange-hued light on this great little indie.

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