Sometimes as a critic you see a film whose sheer existence you appreciate, regardless of the movie’s quality. I mostly enjoyed Sean Baker’s Tangerine, but more important than that, I’m happy that a film like this is being made in 2015. In a year where we’ve seen the most sincere and cynical of both studio and indie filmmaking, there’s something refreshing about the idea of a $100K DIY-style movie filmed entirely on three iPhones seeing a wide theatrical release. What makes it even better is that with no one to answer to, the film is able to tell stories from often-marginalized perspectives, without patting itself on the back too much for doing so.
Tangerine follows Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), a transgender prostitute who goes on the warpath through downtown Los Angeles after her best friend and fellow transgender prostitute Alexandra (Mya Taylor) reveals that her pimp/boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) was cheating with a cisgender prostitute named Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan) while Sin-Dee was serving a month in jail. Sin-Dee sets out to find Dinah and extract her revenge, while Alexandra gets tired of keeping her friend’s drama in check and decides she has more important business to attend to, like singing Christmas tunes in a nightclub. Meanwhile, Razmik (Karren Karagulian), an Armenian cabbie and frequent customer of Alexandra’s, puts his family life at risk when he decides to spend his Christmas Eve attempting to capitalize on his crush on Sin-Dee instead of with his family.
The most immediately striking thing about Tangerine is the in-your-face cinematography. Earlier, I mentioned that the film was made entirely on iPhones with a few attachable lenses, apps, and a hand-held steadicam, but the point is still valid. The experimentation feels fresh and unique, despite literally being a viewpoint everyone in the audience has seen through the device that sits in their pockets threatening to ruin everyone’s theater experience. Baker keeps intensely close as the camera jogs alongside Sin-Dee’s tirade, while playing around with speed balances, extreme zooms, and music video-esque soundtrack storytelling. It’s like if Neveldine/Taylor tried to become Dogme filmmakers but just couldn’t help themselves. More than that, the natural dull light of the L.A. December afternoon combines with some pre-loaded app filters to bathe half of the movie in a warm and hazy glow. It feels a little artificial, but not in a bad way, much like Los Angeles itself. It also sets us up for a sharp visual contrast (and story shift) once the town goes dark.
Independent film is notable for its ability to tell stories from outside the increasingly white, hetero bubble that the studio system supports. Tangerine covers the voices of transgender Person of Color sex workers, but it wouldn’t be fair or accurate to say that it is a movie about transgender PoC sex workers. It’s a story about Sin-Dee and Alexandra, and the film doesn’t harp on about the struggles and hardships of their existence. There’s no monologue about what their life is like; it just lays out the story of these people on this day. It doesn’t even go out of its way to make Sin-Dee particularly likeable for most of its runtime. In doing this, the film creates characters that are deeper than just their labels, and at no point does it feel like it’s clamoring for special attention.
That said, there are still issues with the storytelling, primarily the pacing. Although Tangerine isn’t quite a mumblecore film, the influences of producers Jay and Mark Duplass are very apparent. As a result, the film’s “naturalistic” dialogue is prioritized, actually moving the plot along. What feels like the actual beginning of the story doesn’t happen until about 55 minutes into an 88-minute film. A conflict that feels more like a second-act reveal arises with less than ten minutes to go in the field. Although they are funny, an unnecessary amount of time is spent watching scenes of Razmik’s various passengers before we even know what his relationship is to the girls. When the film finally throws all these elements into direct collision with each other in an unsuspecting donut shop, it’s hilarious. Everyone in the cast plays off each other well, and when given time to breathe, they make a madcap series of conflict which almost makes up for the amount of time it takes getting there.
Tangerine ends on a sweet but somewhat sad note, as the film reminds the audience that this was never meant to be a film where things get solved. It’s a slice-of-life flick, and while individual opinions on her may vary, it’s undeniable that Sin-Dee is a refreshingly unusual protagonist. More important than the quality of Tangerine itself is the purity and idealism in filmmaking that it represents. It feels good to know that there’s a place in the annual movie release schedule for new and exciting films like this to find an audience.Tangerine isn’t a perfect film, but it’s good enough that it deserves attention and support for continuing to press and innovate the ideas of independent, micro-budget filmmaking and storytelling.
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