A story of two Hollywood street hustlers on Christmas Eve, it has everything you could want in a holiday film: Inventively obscene language, rampant prostitution, startling displays of nudity, and horrifying-yet-hilarious street violence.
Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is barely out of jail when friend & fellow street hustler Alexandra (Mya Taylor) informs her that her fiancé / pimp Chester (James Ransone) has been cheating on her with Dinah (Mickey O'Hagan).
This sets off the erratically bi-polar Sin-Dee on a one-transgender woman mission of vengeance to track down Mickey and confront Chester with her. Alexandra tags along, first trying to calm Sin-Dee down, but also trying to promote her own one-person show at a local bar later that night.
Add to this basic Frankie & Johnny mix --
- (a) Razmik (Karren Karagulian), a roving cabbie who pines for Sin-Dee and hopes to keep his wife from finding out,
- (b) Ashken (Alla Tumanian), his vengeful mother-in-law who has found out about his dalliances with transgender hustlers, and
- (c) a third complication which we’ll refrain from mentioning as it’s a spoiler
-- and Tangerine rockets off on a howling funny erratic roller coaster ride which, like all good roller coasters, convinces us at times it’s about to fly off the tracks but in reality is always skillfully and deliberately operating exactly as intended.
Big kudos to writer / director / photographer Sean S. Baker, co-writer Chris Bergoch, co-photographer Radium Cheung, their production team, and the remarkable cast, especially Rodriguez and Taylor who brought a lot of their own real life experience and insight to the production. The sassy but savvy minority sexual nonconformist is a well established trope in films and drama now, threatening to become a full fledged stereotype. Rodriguez and Taylor occasionally get close enough to that trope to wave and yell hello from the other side of the street, but they never actually embrace it.
The relationship between Sin-Dee and Alexandra shows how diametrically opposite personalities can find solace and companionship in one another. Alexandra, for all her street cred, at heart harbors a bittersweet yet very conventional ambition, and despite her failure to gain traction towards her ultimate goal she never seems foolish in her pursuit.
She wants a very conventional form of success and acceptance, and one senses she would cheerfully leave the street far behind if she could find even a modicum of success as a performer.
Sin-Dee, on the other hand, is the most outrageous street hustler since Pam Grier’s Charlotte, the gold standard of psychotic street hustlers from 1981’s Fort Apache: The Bronx. If Rodriguez was not able to lace Sin-Dee’s anger and hurt with inventive humor, she would have been as terrifying as Grier was.
But despite her intense emotional pain, Sin-Dee will not abandon a friend, and even though she’s kidnapped Dinah and is en route to confront Chester (via public transit!), she nonetheless finds time to drag her hostage into the bar where Alexandra is singing so as to support her friend’s performance to a room full of barflies.
Indeed, not only has Sin-Dee compassion for her friend, but she even shows compassion to Dinah, helping her clean up a bit and become more presentable for their inevitable confrontation with Chester.
And in the end, when she is feeling at her worse -- abandoned, shamed, betrayed, friendless -- she finds Alexandra genuinely cares about her, and is literally willing to give her the shirt off her back (or rather, the wig off her own head) to comfort her.
The film intercuts between that and Razmik sitting in his brightly lit apartment, his life and marriage not exactly destroyed but certainly irreparably damaged, and Dinah facing one of the emotionally coldest and bleakest Christmas Eve’s imaginable, and let’s us know what is truly important in our lives. It strips away all the surface distinctions that we get hung up on and let’s us see people relating to others as people, not objects to be used.
Merry Christmas indeed.
Now, some will wonder why I’m celebrating a grim & gritty / down & dirty film about low lifes instead of more upbeat / happy / zesty holiday fare ala White Christmas.
And I love White Christmas. It’s a family favorite we watch every year.
But the big difference between White Christmas (specifically) and other films like it is that they very rarely touch on real life.
White Christmas is a good counterpoint to Tangerine: It also deals with betrayal and trust and compassion, and like Tangerine ends up with an affirmative scene.
But it’s also a fantasy, wholly unrealistic, a lifeless product of the studio system that, while absolutely entertaining on the surface, really doesn’t carry a very deeply resonating meaning.
Yeah, it turns out Rosemary Clooney could trust Bing Crosby after all, huzzah huzzah,
But there was nothing real about their on-screen personas, nothing real about the characters they played.
They were perfect happy characters with perfect happy lives that had Some Whacky Complications but in the end everything turned out even more perfectly happier than everything that had happened before.
And that’s fine in a film that is just light entertainment; we certainly don’t need to be stretching our intellectual muscles over a movie designed to shoehorn as many Irving Berlin songs as possible into a single production.
But while the characters’ conflicts symbolized similar problems audiences might face, there is precious little in White Christmas itself that people then or now could recognize in their own lives.
It’s like a Saturday Evening Post illustration come to life: It pretends to depict reality but in actuality it’s a highly stylized interpretation of same.
Tangerine, on the other hand, may exaggerate reality by cramming so many wild incidents into a single night, but it never depicts anything, no matter how outre’, that doesn’t seem to be 100% authentic.
Which is what makes the reconciliation and forgiveness and compassion at the end so refreshing and -- heaven help us -- heartwarming.
It doesn’t ring of triteness, but of real, genuine feeling.
A further word on Tangerine, this wholly unrelated to the dramatic aspect of the picture.
O'Hagan and Rodriguez preparing to shoot a scene with photographer Radium Cheung and writer / director / photographer Sean S. Baker (right). [photo by Shih-Ching Tsou]
Tangerine was shot entirely on iPhone 5s Smartphones* and that should have traditional production companies and major studios defecating cinderblocks. It gets in and among its characters with astounding ease, and people familiar with the Hollywood / Highland / Santa Monica Blvd area where the film was shot will be amazed at the versatility of the production.
Seriously, you’ve got a film that looks as good as any other low budget feature, and accomplished entirely on a device you are probably already carrying in your pocket. Tangerine had a $100,000 budget, but in a big part that’s because they were filming with permits in Hollywood; I can imagine a production with less scruples and / or shot in a less media savvy area costing but a tiny fraction of that.
What in means in terms of film & media production is that there’s now literally no bar to entry except the imagination and ability of the film maker/s & casts.
* Wikipedia notes “They used the FiLMIC Pro app, a video app (to control focus, aperture and color temperature, as well as capture video clips at higher bit-rates) and an anamorphic adapter from Moondog Labs (to capture widescreen). They also used Tiffen's Steadicam Smoothee to capture smooth moving shots.)”