Sometimes it’s easy to forget how satisfying a simple story can be. With the glut of two hour plus blockbusters dominating mainstream cinema, Tangerine is a comforting reminder that there can, and should be, a place for small stories on the big screen. Drenched in iconic sun-kissed tones, Sean Baker’s film about a transgender prostitute trying to track down her cheating pimp/boyfriend, is a master class in independent filmmaking.
The opening scene of Tangerine is one of my favorites in the film. A rising sun streams light through the windows of a dinky donut shop, frying the edges of the frame as we meet Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) freshly out of a stint in prison for prostitution, and her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor), a fellow sex worker and aspiring singer. Alexandra catches Sin-Dee up on the latest gossip on the streets, when the subject of Sin-Dee’s pimp/boyfriend Chester’s (James Ransone) infidelity arises. Surprise, surprise, Chester has been test driving some of his other “merchandise,” with the added insult that she’s a caucasian woman born with female genitalia. Of course this affront doesn’t sit well with Sin-Dee, who storms out of the shop and clomps down the sidewalk to the punctuated beats of electronic gunfire. Determined to steer clear of the drama Sin-Dee’s rampage will inspire, Alexandra decides to instead drum up interest among her colleagues for a performance she has that night at a local club.
Within a few minutes, that opening scene had me hooked to this story and the lives of the people Tangerine is so clearly enthusiastic to tell. What bogs down so many modern films is overly complicated stories with plots that don’t allow characters to breath, or their world to be explored. By keeping the story intimate, the characters, and the fringe society they inhabit, begin to open organically without tedious exposition. Alexandra’s frustration over Sin-Dee’s knee-jerk reaction, and their obvious history together is so palpable from the beginning, one wonders if Alexandra enjoyed the break while Sin-Dee was away. And despite the drama Sin-Dee invites on herself, her character is so well visualized that we are right there with her when she finds Chester’s girl on the side, Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), and proceeds to drag her through the streets, shoeless I might add, to confront Chester.
It may be important to note at this point that Tangerine is a dark comedy with punctuations of real talk when the situation calls for it. One can never overestimate the danger these women are in on a daily basis, and even though the film doesn’t depict sex acts on screen, it doesn’t shy away from the interactions they have with clients. What makes this film special is the care everyone takes in portraying the characters with sensitivity and respect, which makes it possible for us to laugh with them instead of at them. Sin-Dee’s interactions with Dinah make for some humorous moments, but at the core is the realization that both women are tied to a dangerous life and a loser of a man. Their world is not without hope though, which is best exemplified through Alexandra’s quest to become a legitimate singer. We find out that for now, she has to pay for the chance to perform at the club, which Dinah mercilessly teases her for, but Alexandra has too much dignity to let it bother her. That girl has a plan.
It’s well known that Tangerine was filmed on a nothing budget with an iPhone.* The lack of fancy equipment wasn’t director/writer Sean Baker’s ideal situation to film this story, but I think everyone can agree that making due with what you have often yields significant blessings. In the case of this film, I can’t imagine a better instrument than an iPhone to capture the covertness of sex work as well as the intimate moments between characters. It’s an exciting new entry into a growing collection of work around experimental filmmaking, and possibly another area of film analysis that considers the relationship between a film’s subject and the way it is captured.
It may take some time for these stories and characters to reach a broader audience, but in the meantime I’ll continue to thank those independent filmmakers who choose to struggle with bare bones to produce films worth seeing a million times over.
*and a lens cover that shoots wide scope, and a really cool sounding phone app that allows you to record 24 frames per second, as well as significant post-production work.
Tangerine opens today at the Ritz Bourse.
Author: Jill Malcolm
Jill is happiest attending midnight screenings with other crazy film fans at her local theater. Her other passions include reading, traveling to faraway places, cat videos, pugs, and jalapeño peppers. She is co-founder of the blog Filmhash.