Director: Sean Baker
Cast: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karren Karagulian, Mickey O'Hagan, James Ransone, Alla Tumanian, Luiza Nersisyan
MPAA Rating: (for strong and disturbing sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout, and drug use)
Running Time: 1:28
Release Date: 7/10/15 (limited); 7/17/15 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | July 16, 2015
There's an inescapable sensation of voyeurism to the experience of watching Tangerine. It's not just the story, which involves a group of outsiders connected by their open or hidden secrets of gender identity and/or sexuality. It's not just that story's structure, which follows these characters with no greater—or less of a—purpose than to observe the course of their daily lives, which are, we imagine, only slightly more eventful on this particular day. It's not just the cast, which is a strange but seamless blend of naturalistic performances from non-professional, character, unknown, veteran, and, in at least one instance, pornographic actors. It's not just the film's form, which becomes instantly notable for being entirely—and quite effectively—shot on a cellphone.
All of these elements work in tandem in a tough-to-pinpoint way. It doesn't feel as if we're watching a documentary, but there are moments when the film feels as if we are witnessing some clandestinely captured visual record of something intensely private or distasteful, like a video of an intimate encounter or a crime recorded on, well, a cellphone. In those moments, it feels as if director Sean Baker has invaded these characters' lives, whether by happening upon a scene on the street or hiding in the backseat of a car (An added bonus is seeing the reactions of bystanders who apparently became unwitting background extras in a film they might not have known was being shot).
We're watching it, but we feel like we shouldn't be watching it. That sense of guilt and/or discomfort coupled with a certain morbid curiosity goes a long way to heightening the impact of the admittedly rudimentary and melodramatic turns to be found in Baker and Chris Bergoch's screenplay. What happens here is almost inconsequential when compared to how Baker presents it.
It's Christmas Eve in Los Angeles. The main characters are Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), two transgender women who, at the film's start, are having one of their routine gossiping sessions. The conversation turns to Sin-Dee's boyfriend, and Alexandra accidentally lets it slip that he has been cheating on her. Sin-Dee sets out to find the woman with whom her man has been two-timing her, and Alexandra tries to recruit an audience for a singing gig at a local lounge.
Meanwhile, Razmik (Karren Karagulian), a cab driver and immigrant from Armenia, is driving around the city looking for fares. All of them are strange in one way or another, from the young woman who spends the whole time taking pictures of herself to a couple of guys who have done a little too much drinking in preparation for a party. He has a wife (Luiza Nersisyan) and young daughter at home, as well as an overbearing and suspicious mother-in-law (Alla Tumanian) with whom to contend.
The connection between the women and the cabbie isn't clear at first, so we simply take in the oddities that come with the characters' regular habits. We learn that Sin-Dee and Alexandra are prostitutes, struggling to make ends meet. Baker and Bergoch have a sometimes unsettling but always engaging way of juxtaposing the characters' desperation with some wickedly amusing bits of absurdity.
There's a meeting between Alexandra and a man seeking her services, which begins as a negotiation, turns into an argument over whether or not she did her part even though he didn't get anything out it, and ends with a funny scene with Alexandra trying to calmly explain the "business" nature of their argument with a couple of cops. When Sin-Dee finds her boyfriend's woman-on-the-side (Mickey O'Hagan), the scene details a rather seedy and pathetic brothel inside a motel room, but Sin-Dee's laser-like focus on her goal gives the scene an unexpectedly comic energy (It's also entertaining to watch her drag the other woman through the city by the hair, the arm, her bag, and whatever else she can get her hands on, while onlookers respond with indifference).
It turns out that Razmik has a proclivity for women like Sin-Dee and Alexandra (He scolds one prostitute for walking the street he usually frequents, since she possesses, well, the "right"—or, in his mind, "wrong"—set of anatomical equipment). He doesn't seem to into these encounters only for the sex. There's some longing here that the film touches upon in the way he excuses himself from his family's Christmas dinner to attend Alexandra's show. It's perhaps a need for a connection with someone who understands him. The film doesn't overtly explain the characters' shared need for such bonds, but it's present, nonetheless.
The poignancy of the film comes from these unspoken desires—for understanding, compassion, or, if one wants to put it bluntly, love—that are communicated through more prurient methods, from Razmik's quick sexual encounters to Sin-Dee's physical manifestation of jealousy over the loss of what she believed to be a genuine romance. The story is a little heavy on the backend in terms of revealing important parts of the characters' histories. They come to light through a climactic encounter in a donut shop, where Sin-Dee's boyfriend/pimp Chester (James Ransone) relaxes after a long day of work. That scene, while vital, feels manufactured, as all the players come together to have their dirty laundry aired out for everyone.
There's really no "point" to the film. If one is looking for some sort of deep character study, it's not here, but that doesn't lessen the experience of Tangerine. It gives us the opportunity to sneak a covert peek at a trio of sad lives that crash in an urban sea of troubles.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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