Written by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch
Directed by Sean Baker
From the opening moments, you know you are in for a nonstop burst of energy in Tangerine. Much like Sin-Dee who refuses to smoke a joint because she only does uppers, this film has a continual momentum. This dynamic is aided by the technique of filmmaking on display, an iPhone with some apps and at times a Steadicam rig. That sense of rolling energy is supported by this incredibly new mode of making movies and with our two trans main characters. Sean Baker is doing something very experimental yet familiar, made apparent with his use of the old standard “Babes in Toyland.” Baker wants to blend the modern with the classic and create a new kind of film.
At one point, a character describes Los Angeles as “a beautifully wrapped lie.” Baker doesn’t necessarily agree with this character but wants all viewpoints about his setting out in the open. The L.A. we see is not a glamorous movie star-filled extravaganza but a seemingly endless concrete slab populated with doughnut shops, car washes, and seedy motels. To contrast the urban sprawl, Baker oversaturates the colors and imbues the world with a sort of fairy tale motif. There’s a moment where Alexandra, Sin-Dee’s best friend, sings at a bar on stage and she’s lit in a way that shows us how she sees this moment. For Alexandra, despite having to pay for her stage time, she is a classic Hollywood songstress.
Tangerine is a story told from the perspective of transgender sex workers and immigrants. It seamlessly fits with Baker’s third film The Florida Project, another story about a magical place (Orlando) but from the viewpoint of marginalized sex workers and their children. Baker is drawn to those outsiders that live within the dream yet aren’t allowed to take part it in. Alexandra’s onstage performance mirrors Moonee’s fantastical escape into the Magic Kingdom as the social workers have come to retrieve her. Hollywood and Disneyworld have become shorthand for dreams and fantasies; they have transcended being simple places and have become a state of mind. Even those who aren’t incorporated into the slick marketing of these locales want to be there among “the happy people.”
In interviews, Baker has expressed his choice to seek out the perspective of people on the fringe of society, making previous films centered on undocumented immigrants and with Tangerine, members of the trans community. He states that he has continuing friendships with these people, which can be seen in how richly empathic Baker presents his characters. And as unconventional as his cast may be, Baker is intelligent enough to make his plots classic Hollywood. The Florida Project is a Little Rascals film, and Tangerine is a screwball comedy about a cheating partner.
Alexandra plays the straight woman off of Sin-Dee’s whirling dervish of drama and blow-ups. There’s a subplot involving Razmik, an Armenian immigrant cab driver who is hiding his penchant for transwomen from his wife and mother-in-law. Sin-Dee tracks down the woman her pimp/lover has been with while she was in jail and begins the dragging the woman around town while searching for Chester. Moreover, the whole thing is set on Christmas Eve turning into an oddly affecting and appropriate holiday flick. Los Angeles is a city that defies norms even in the weather at Christmas time, sunny and warm.
Tangerine is a film presented in technicolor brushstrokes with a genuine and human story underlying the entire affair. Every character is trying to survive in one way or another, some of this survival is very material, and for others, it’s about living a double life, hiding part of their sexuality. With all Baker’s movies, he shows unconditional love and understanding for everyone on screen. There are no villains, just people making a series of choices, some good and some bad.