As transgender issues work their way forward into the popular media and public consciousness, it’s easy to suppose how the hot topic could be exploited by would-be filmmakers wishing to make a name for themselves, hoping that audiences would mistake using trans people as props for genuine activism on behalf of an oppressed minority. Thankfully, that’s not what has happened with Tangerine, a crazy day in the life of a couple of transgender sex workers. This is largely due to a sense of authenticity lent to the film by the two leads actually being transgender sex workers and the film’s story apparently mirroring some of their experiences.
It is Christmas Eve, and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) has just been released from a short jail term. While meeting up with her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor), she learns that her fiancée/pimp was sleeping with another woman while she was away. Sin-Dee decides to go on a cross-town tirade to track down this woman so that she can confront her fiancée, while Alexandra tags along distributing flyers for her singing performance later that evening.
The experience of this film is rather unique in how it feels so authentic. Shot on an iPhone with an anamorphic adapter for widescreen and at real locations in West Hollywood, the film feels devoid of the pomp and circumstance of big budget productions, instead relying on the charisma and emotion of its amateur actors to pull the weight of the storytelling. All involved do a fantastic job, particularly the two leads whom I was shocked to learn had little to no prior acting experience. They are naturally funny in playing caricatured self-portraits, yet when the moment calls for them to be more serious they are more than up for the task, particularly for a climax that is touching as it is appropriate for the film’s Christmas setting.
The only unfortunate thing about this film is that its already short runtime of 87 minutes feels padded with a distracting subplot. The film continually cuts away to Razmin, an Armenian cab driver who frequently uses transgender prostitutes’ services to cope with his culture’s abhorrence with his homosexuality. I spent most of the film trying to figure out what purpose he served in Sin-Dee’s and Alexandra’s narratives, and unfortunately there isn’t much of one. Razmin’s brief interactions with the two women make an impact on his story, but his story ultimately has no resolution and only serves to distract from the most touching moments Sin-Dee and Alexandra share. Perhaps director Sean S. Baker was trying to make a point by not giving Razmin any sort of proper closure, but he feels like he should have been a character in his own film, rather than be overshadowed by the infinitely more interesting leads. That said, Razmin has his share of funny moments, so his presence isn’t a total waste of time.
Ultimately, even with the seemingly pointless Razmin subplot, Tangerine is a great movie, particularly in its natural portrayal of its transgender subjects. The film does not shy away from knowledge that discrimination and violence against trangender individuals and sex workers are very real issues, but that is also not the main point of the film; the point is to show a day in the life of these people in a way that is human and relatable, in a way that makes us laugh and cry along with them. Rodriguez and Taylor have shown us a glimpse of their world that I won’t be forgetting any time soon.