By SHAY COLLINS
Tangerine — a 2015 release from writer/director duo Sean S. Baker and Chris Bergoch — chronicles the actions of people who feel trapped. The movie focuses on two transsexual prostitutes and best friends: Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor). At the start of the movie, both women set off on quests. Sin-Dee is hell-bent on finding the woman with whom her fiancé and pimp, Chester (James Ransone), cheated on her while she was in prison for 28 days. Alexandra nonchalantly hands out fliers for her Christmas Eve gig to friends and clients (though, with each little blue paper, the feeling that no one’s going to show grows stronger). Baker and Bergoch, however, constantly drift hints that something bigger is afoot. Alexandra and Sin-Dee never seem to completely see eye-to-eye and scenes of taxi driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian) driving around Los Angeles’ drunk and disconsolate intersperse the main action. A malaise pervades Tangerine — every single turn of events seems like a turn for the worse.
Tangerine’s atmosphere undoubtedly adds to the unease. Working on a $100,000 budget, Baker and Bergoch filmed the entirety of Tangerine on iPhone 5 video applications. Consequently, the viewer is always by the main characters’ sides. When Sin-Dee drags Chester’s paramour Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan) through the Los Angeles streets, the viewer limps along. After a drunk and/or high party boy vomits in Razmik’s taxi, the viewer must stare the next rider in the eye as she tries to take in a breath of fresh air. Tangerine’s pacing and music subtly intensify as the characters progress through their terrifying and hectic days. Initially, shots drag out for minutes at a time as we watch Sin-Dee and Alexandra walk for what feels like miles, punctuated only by thick, choppy beats and synthesizers. By the end of the film, however, the directors cut from storyline to storyline rapidly under overwrought, dramatic music as all of the characters’ adventures advance towards one high-stakes ending. Throughout the film, cramped spaces become focal points as Tangerine explores the interplay between intimacy and (the lack of) safety, between sexuality and manipulation.
The main players of Tangerine are, first-and-foremost, trapped: trapped in sex work, trapped in drug addiction, trapped in loveless marriages and manipulative relationships. Sin-Dee and Alexandra take on great danger whenever they enter a client’s car, a fact that Bergoch and Baker do not fully bring into sharp relief until late in the film. In Tangerine, the viewer both sees Sin-Dee committing and being subjected to a huge amount of violence. It’s impossible to completely put fear out of mind when we see the (at least surface-level) tenderness in Alexandra and Razmik’s relationship. Yet, no one character ever finds love and safety from another character. In fact, every time the viewer starts to notice trust and compassion between characters, Baker and Bergoch tear the relationship apart.
Furthermore, Tangerine is set on the sunny, sweltering day before Christmas, further questioning ideas about family, selfless and rebirth. The film begins with Sin-Dee breaking bread (well, doughnut) in the same Donut Time where all hell breaks loose at the end of the film. Throughout the plot, small gifts call attention to both the loneliness that characters feel and the solace they seek in each other. Alexandra buys Razmik an air-freshener for his reeking car. When Sin-Dee finally confronts Chester, she realizes that he did not buy her a Christmas present. In the closing moments, Alexandra literally and symbolically gives Sin-Dee a part of herself. Through its portrayal of characters as givers and receivers, victims and abusers, Tangerine features multi-faceted, difficult-to-know characters.
One of Tangerine’s greatest strengths is its ability to make viewers sympathize with characters, only to question that sympathy minutes later. Sin-Dee is easy to root for: bold, clever, cunning and self-advocating. Yet, the viewer also sees her physically abusing Dinah for hours out of jealousy. Given the chance, Dinah taunts and jeers at Sin-Dee in the Donut Shop. Yet, once the viewer starts to see Dinah as a bully, Chester makes her walk home with one flip-flop, only to have the door of her motel brothel slammed in her face. Even Razmik, who keeps Alexandra’s gig flyer lovingly (or obsessively) folded in his pocket, ends up sitting alone in a dark room next to a glistening Christmas tree.
Rodriguez, Taylor and O’Hagan’s acting propels much of Tangerine; Rodriguez’s performance alone justifies watching the movie. Sin-Dee talks constantly, be it threatening, hustling, joking or fighting, but Rodriguez’s facial expressions convey just as much, if not more, information during momentary silences. When Sin-Dee says one thing, she often means the exact opposite (“I promise no drama, Alexandra!”) and Rodriguez perfectly acts the role as a theatrical and dramatic character, but also a vulnerable and desperate one. Whereas Rodriguez stuns with her lightning-speed delivery, Taylor and O’Hagan both excel through subtlety. All of the characters live in a world where they must always manufacture fake affection and play their real cards close to the chest. Tangerine is a must-see film — energetically paced, hilariously written and, in the end, full of realistic, saddening emotion.