Release Date: July 10th, 2015 (US); November 13th, 2015 (UK)
Genre: Comedy; Drama
Starring: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor
The first thing you notice in Sean Baker’s Tangerine is its rapid-fire manifesto. Editing, pacing, score, dialogue — everything is turned up to 11, including the sepia-tinted aesthetic. It looks a bit like how a Coldplay music video would if Coldplay ever tapped into their underground urban side, boasting heightened tones and the occasional influx of technicolour vibrancy. Discussions between characters — especially our two main protagonists, sex workers Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) — aren’t quite comprehensive chats, more vulgar sound bites.
The very simple plot revolves around the search for Sin-Dee’s pimp-turned-boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) who has been outed by Alexandra as a cheat. Sin-Dee, having spent the last month in prison, is on the warpath, tearing through makeshift sex dens and doughnut joints in her breakneck quest for answers. Mirroring films such as Locke and Collateral, Tangerine thrives on its simplistic premise that unfolds within a contained locale (the streets of Downtown LA) and, like in those outings, vehicles become key mediators — much of the unsophisticated magic takes place in cars.
Unlike the more polished aforementioned flicks, Sean Baker’s proposition is rugged and boisterous, thanks in part to its headline duo. They may not be A-list stars, but Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor both completely convince as captivating on-screen presences. Rodriguez is spiky as the wittily named Sin-Dee whereas Taylor’s Alexandra relays a much calmer demeanour; she clearly doesn’t want any drama, though she is clearly also hanging around with the wrong ticked off prostitute. (Just in case we weren’t already aware, at one point Alexandra literally stands before a crossroads and chooses the quieter route.)
Later, we see her deliver a classically romanticised vocal performance before paying the venue manager for his troubles, and not vice-versa. She wants to be a singer, her desperation evident in this solemn scene that harks back to Girlhood’s “Diamonds” sequence. Alexandra’s trans identity adds some fuel to the narrative — we see men, including Armenian taxi driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian), give into their intimate urges while also trying to uphold some degree of self-perceived normality — but otherwise it’s beside the point. If there is any point to be made it’s that, by optioning good roles for trans actors, Tangerine represents what will hopefully become a proportional improvement.
We spend a fair chunk of time with the aforementioned Razmik and, while it isn’t time wasted per se, there is a sense it is time mishandled. He wheels around a bunch of not-so-eclectic residents in his taxi (one customer’s pet has just died, another inebriated duo disgustingly vomit everywhere) and you are left wondering why Los Angeles has suddenly run out of interesting folk. Perhaps it is just LA, but the film seems to exist in a world where nobody cares about anything or anyone, which kind of adds to the pillaging tenacity. Unfortunately, this also hampers your emotional involvement: there is no moral code, enemies fight all over town and then smoke a bong together in a seedy bathroom.
When characters aren’t communicating via swearwords, they deliver sporadic helpings of humour: a short-changed guy validates his craving for sex with a “come on, it’s Christmas”. Tangerine straddles the line between comedy and drama and just when you think things are about to get weighty, there is an influx of amusement. I think the piece is tonally muddled though: scenes exploring the woes of prostitution, of which there are many, could be presented as either lightly comedic or darkly dramatic, but the film opts for both and subsequently invokes a confusing disconnect. It’s tough to sympathise with a character who rampages through the streets towing a hostage one moment, and then supports her dream-chasing mate the next.
It is common knowledge that the film was shot using the iPhone 5s, not that you ever really notice. Indeed you do feel like you are on street level among the myriad of personalities, but that’s not exactly something the iPhone can claim exclusivity over. City of God, shot using conventional equipment, manages to generate the same immersive pretence for instance. Baker and Radium Cheung both have cinematography credits (Baker also co-wrote the film with Chris Bergoch) and their collaborative effort is effective — a car wash scene is particularly excellent, filmed with invention and amusement in mind.
“Los Angeles is a beautifully wrapped lie,” bemoans Razmik’s annoying mother-in-law. Her statement rings true as the film reaches its conclusion: a neon-infused Spring Breakers synth vibe serenades characters whose worlds are sort of in tatters, probably not unexpectedly given the tumultuous nature of their jobs. There is hope, but by this point I wished I had been given more of a mandate to care.
Images copyright (©): Magnolia Pictures