Sean Baker's Tangerine stunned audiences at Sundance, shattered casting conventions and its filmmaking techniques are up-to-the-minute. An exhilarating revenge drama intertwined with buddy comedy, it is uproarious chaos at its freshest. Tinseltown turned upside down.
“Girl, calm the fuck down, it’s not that serious!” Alexandra yells at her fuming friend Sin-dee. “I will go with you under one condition - you must promise me that there will be NO DRAMA,” she adds. A little too quickly, without looking her in the eye, Sin-dee agrees - there will be no drama…
IMDb’s logline of Sean Baker’s micro-budget comedy drama film, Tangerine, reads “A hooker tears through Tinseltown on Christmas Eve searching for the pimp who broke her heart.” Of course, there was going to be drama. Sin-dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) are transgender prostitutes who work a seedy block on Santa Monica Boulevard, notorious for crime and prostitution. Much of the action in the film takes place in and around this not-so-glamorous neighbourhood of Hollywood, pivoted around a bustling donut store called ‘Donut Time.’ It’s where we are first introduced to our fierce and funny protagonists. Sin-dee is just out from a stint in jail and Alexandra has accidentally let it slip that her pimp boyfriend Chester has been cheating on Sin-dee while she was in the can, that too with “real white fish, with a vagina and everything!” What follows is an exhilarating, bombastic day of racing through the dark side of Hollywood with Sin-dee Rella as she attempts to uncover who the “white fish” is and how Chester could do what everyone but her seems to know he did.
There are many aspects of this film that make Tangerine one of the most entertaining, fresh and evocative films out there. What could be considered a typical, almost meagre plot line is elevated by its cast of rambunctious, colourful characters and its previously unexplored setting of Los Angeles’ “unofficial red light district,” which is itself elevated by the carefree but considerate treatment Sean Baker gives his film. It isn’t simply the story of Sin-dee looking for a confrontation or pay back. It’s the story of an entire subculture previously unseen on the big screen. Of an existence brushed under the rug by the blinding lights of showbiz and fame. It is also a refreshing take on the buddy comedy genre, again not so much for its premise - two friends out on a mission, overcoming hurdles together and growing as a result of it - as much for its vulnerability and pervasiveness in such a hardened environment. Instead of validating preconceived notions around the transgender community and prostitution, Baker’s approach is one filled with curiosity, of intently and honestly capturing the emotional highs and lows crucial to a cinematic story, and which just happen to be a normal aspect of a day on the streets in L.A.
Meanwhile, there is also a seemingly unrelated subplot about an Armenian immigrant taxi driver who, unknown to his family, looks for indulgence in Sin-dee and Alexandra’s world, but instead finds friendship and even comfort. Baker spends a fair amount of time initially establishing the banality of his existence, showing all kinds of passengers passing through his cab, crudely telling of the transient nature of Los Angeles itself. But slowly, as the drama unravels, its momentum captured perfectly by the film’s turbo-electric-western-classical background score, the two worlds intertwine, building towards an explosion for a climax.
Tangerine premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015 and caused a major stir when it was revealed that the film was shot almost entirely, on an iPhone 5S. It was a decision the independent writer-director Sean Baker made to accommodate the film’s tiny budget. Looking at the film however, you would never think so: shot in widescreen, it features a 2.35:1 cinemascope aspect ratio (typically used for large scale adventure films) and its camera zooms through the streets of LA with a fluidity you’d never expect from a handheld device. Apart from the iPhone itself (of which they used three), Baker’s key ingredients were an $8 app called Filmic Pro which allowed the filmmakers fine-grained control over the focus, aperture, and colour temperature, a Steadicam rig to stabilise the device and a set of anamorphic adapter lenses that attached to the iPhone. The lenses made by Moondog Labs were essential to turning an Apple device shot picture into a film that belongs on the big screen, according to the filmmaker. Of course, like all films, Tangerine also underwent post-processing, where instead of draining the colour, a move typical of social realist films, Baker’s team decided to pump up the colours and saturate through the roof, “just because the world there is so colourful and the women are so colourful.” They wanted to match that.
“Los Angeles is a beautifully wrapped lie,” declares a character towards the end of the film. The experience of watching Tangerine is not unlike the experience of slowly unwrapping a large gift on Christmas morning. As you shred through the colourful papers and ribbons, exuberance and excitement give way to the reality of the item itself and the grown up realisation that it’s not Santa Clause but the efforts of your parents that have placed it there. Similarly, the gritty hardship of a life spent working the corner is veiled within the film’s over-the-top comedy, in the joy discovered in unsuspecting encounters, and in the fragile relationships that make it home for the women who live it. The sisterhood between Alexandra and Sin-dee in that mansion of momentary physical pleasure brings great depth to the film. It is vulnerable, raucous and endearing, and it is in this sorority, even as you laugh at the wilderness, that you see the film transcend its circumstance.