Tangerine is a movie that ticks a lot of indie films boxes: it was shot on iPhones, a comedy-drama about two prostitutes, and it starred two transgender non-professional actors and premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. These type of movies can go one of two ways be fantastic or awful: Fortunately Tangerine is the former.
Tangerine follows two transgender prostitutes in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve. Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) has just been released from prison after a 28-day sentence and finds out her boyfriend/pimp, Chester (James Ransone) had cheated on her during her incarnation. Sin-Dee raises hell across LA as she searches for the woman who Chester has slept with and for Chester himself – while Alexandra (Mya Taylor) tries to promote her singing performance at a local bar.
The subject manner of transgender prostitutes working the streets of the less desirable areas of Los Angeles would make people think Tangerine is going to be a grim kitchen sink drama – yet it is a bright, vibrant movie that is witty as well as dramatic. One of the biggest selling points of Tangerine was its use of iPhones and these small devices allowed the filmmakers to get up close and personal with the actors as they storm around LA: fight, meets Johns, go around in taxis, etc… It gave the movie a very organic, fly-on-the-wall style as we see these people lives. Combined with the setting in rundown areas of Los Angeles, and following the different characters, Tangerine‘s filming style follows a load of characters during a day of their lives, makes the movie very similar to Larry Clark’s Kids, a pseudo-documentary.
The iPhones were used were modified to make the footage cinematic – using specially adapted lens and software for post-production. The results were a glorious looking movie. Despite the setting in the poorer, crime-ridden areas of LA, Tangerine is very colorful, using lots of oranges and blues throughout the movie and shows that filmmakers do not need experience, high-end cameras to make a great looking movie.
Rodriguez and Taylor were both sex workers in their early adult lives. They were non-actors, yet they gave excellent natural performances. Their onscreen friendship felt very real, and they had great chemistry together, Rodriguez being the hot head who shouts, storms around and fights her way around LA while Taylor is the more reasonable one of the pair – though not above fighting or making snarky comments when facing bitchy companions in their profession.
Karren Karagulian as Razmik, an Armenian cab driver also has a significant role. He is an immigrant and a family man but cruises around for transgender prostitutes and harbors a crush for one in particular. The stories of these three characters makes Tangerine very similar to Hubert Selby Jr’s cult novel Last Exit to Brooklyn. Both the movie and the book tell stories of prostitutes and working class people living their lives, or in the case of Razmik, a secret life. The characters in the movie bare particularly similarities to the Last Exit to Brooklyn characters of Georgette: a drug-addicted transvestite prostitute and Harry, a strike leader with a young son and a closeted homosexual.
Tangerine does have some very funny moments and lines sprinkled during the run time and the tone is kept fairly light, essentially around Sin-Dee and Alexandra. One of my personal favorites is after Sin-Dee raided a brothel and one of the clients came up with a very idiotic suggestion afterward. Comedy and tragedy are very close to each other in the movie and sometimes even overlap, as in its final act involving Razmik and his family. It was a difficult balancing act for director/co-writer Sean S. Baker, and he pulled it off.
Tangerine boasts an extremely eclectic soundtrack, having rap, electric guitar riffs, classical music and drum-and-bass. It sounds random, but it is a mix that works giving that movie a lot of energy, matching the characters, their actions, and the colors on screen.
Tangerine is a testament for low budget filmmaking – it was made on a budget of $100,000 yet looks like it cost a lot more. Despite the dark subject matter Tangerine is a fun and witty and worth checking out. An indie delight.