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‘Tangerine’ a visually stunning and viciously funny comedy-drama

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(Official 'Tangerine' Facebook Page)

(Official ‘Tangerine’ Facebook Page)

Like all great movies, “Tangerine” feels like it’s only 10 minutes long. It’s a dose of cinematic adrenaline, filtered through profound affection and humanity. It’s chaotic and kinetic, sweet and propulsive, witty and sad. From the film’s opening moments, when the two lead characters exit a donut shop on Christmas Eve and power-walk down the sun-glazed streets of Santa Monica Boulevard, a tingling sensation began to creep up my spine. A realization dawned on me, even though I couldn’t articulate it at first. Whatever this movie is, it’s something I have not seen before.

Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), a transgender prostitute who works the streets of Los Angeles, has just finished a month-long jail stint for drug possession. She meets up with her best friend and co-worker Alexandra (Mya Taylor). Much to her indignation, Sin-Dee discovers that her boyfriend (who also doubles as her pimp) has been cheating on her with a “fish” (a woman born with a vagina) while she was in prison. She goes off to find this fish and assert her dominance. The concerned Alexandra wants no part of this business and just hopes to get enough people to attend her vocal performance at the local drag bar.

In a flurry of lightning-esque editing, “Tangerine” jumps between the exploits of Sin-Dee and Alexandra and one of their clients, an Armenian cab driver named Razmik (Karren Karagulian) and it all culminates in one of the most memorable, amusing and wistful climaxes in recent memory.

The film was shot on an iPhone 5s. To me, that cutesy gimmick sounded like the epitome of the modern, digital indie inclination toward hideous, kitchen sink realism aesthetics. How wonderfully wrong was I.

Director Sean Baker uses prime color correction to paint Los Angeles in lush purple hues and electric yellow flashes. His camera weaves in and around buildings and alleyways like a sidewinder. The film’s lovely, saturated widescreen aspect ratio and anamorphic lens allows the frame to move in a way that only a phone could move.

Rodriguez and Taylor both deliver fantastic, evocative performances with great comedic and dramatic chemistry. We’re not dealing with an unfortunately familiar situation in which cisgendered male actors don some makeup to grab an Oscar (raise your hands Jared Leto and Eddie Redmayne.) Rodriguez and Taylor are the real deal: two trans women of color who worked as sex workers in Los Angeles.

Neither of them had ever acted before, yet the natural ease of their movement and words makes them seem better pros than most of the highest paid celebs. These people innately understand their characters because they lived through them their whole lives. If some have attempted to justify the practical invisibility of trans people in Hollywood with claims of a lack of viable trans stars, than their excuses have dried up now. These women are knockouts.

Rodriguez is dynamite as a woman whose blood you can practically see boil in the gleam of the sunlight. She portrays Sin-Dee as bouncy and animated, with a flavor of unhinged that feels genuine. Even when she’s cruel and callous, there’s never a moment where we don’t want to see Sin-Dee prevail in her exploits.

If Rodriguez drives the film freight train-style with her relentless exuberance, then Mya Taylor grounds “Tangerine” with her soulful longing. Alexandra has dreams of escape from her current environment. She aspires to elevate herself from the bottom rung that society has placed her in, even when a wave of factors work against her.

If Sin-Dee’s flaws rest on the fact that she’s too preoccupied with the pettiness of street drama to see the bigger picture, then Alexandra’s tragedy is that she knows of a world beyond her orbit – and because of her intersecting identities, society conspires against her to ensure she never reaches it.

Although the film is rife with funny, flowing dialogue and even verges on slapstick at times, an innate sadness hovers around the heart of “Tangerine.” In the face of hopeless predicaments, the film says that the best you can do is to find a community that welcomes you, and learn to enjoy – or endure – current moments of cheer even when darkness slithers on the horizon.

I want more movies like “Tangerine.” I dream of an ideal cinematic world where every movie house could show a gorgeous film shot on a phone next to an equally gorgeous one shot in 70mm film. A world filled with a crescendo of exemplary, distinctive voices.

There needs to be more works of art that spotlight characters like Sin-Dee and Alexandra. Diversity does not exist just as a quota to be fulfilled. We need it because it opens up doorways to a near-infinite range of real experiences, perspectives and unique stories. “Tangerine” shows us all of the humor and sadness that such storytelling can evoke.

Nate Taskin can be reached at [email protected].

About the Writer
Nate Taskin, Assistant Arts Editor
Current media is way too hooked on past glories and it’s part of a wider toxic cultural mentality.
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