Tangerine: A Comedy Where I Wasn’t The Punchline

TangerineTangerine - Poster

Directed by Sean S. Baker
Starring Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, James Ransone, Mickey O’Hagan, Karren Karagulian
Screenplay by Sean S. Baker, Chris Bergoch
R, 88 Minutes
July 10, 2015 (limited)

There’s something to be said for a movie that thrills you before you even sit down at the cinema. I had luckily caught wind of Tangerine just a few weeks before it made its international premiere here in Australia for the annual Sydney Film Festival. The film had first caught my eye because the entirety of it had been captured on iPhones. As a photography major and someone who loves the technical aspect of movie-making, this intrigued me immensely, and then I read what the plot was, and I grew tense.

On a sweltering hot Christmas Eve in Los Angeles, two transgender women who are sex workers find themselves wrapped up in one big commotion involving lovers, pimps, bigotry, and friendship. I’ll admit, before I had done any reading up on Tangerine and the crew behind it, I was a little turned off. I want more stories about transgender people, especially trans women. Frankly I crave for those narratives; however, I didn’t want to take the time out of my day to go and see another exploitation movie that I assumed would turn us trans folks into another gag, especially in what could end up being an indie darling for the next few months. I’m very glad I was completely proven wrong.

The biggest factor that made me reconsider my initial feelings and go see it was the fact that the two lead characters are actually played by trans women. To some people I know, this surprises them with how big of a deal it is to a lot of trans people. Yes, while we have the likes of the amazing Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black and Jamie Clayton in Sense8, it’s still not something you really see at all in movies. In Tangerine, we have Kitana Kiki Rodriguez as Sin-Dee Rella and Mya Taylor as Alexandra, and these two women knock it out of the park.

Taylor (left) and Rodriguez (right) in the film's opening scene.
Taylor (left) and Rodriguez (right) in the film’s opening scene.

Despite no prior major acting experience, both women deliver stellar performances that had my entire theatre either gasping in shock or screaming with laughter. Rodriguez is hard-hitting and explosive; she effortlessly glides across each scene with such power and magnitude. Taylor, meanwhile, is more reserved, yet just as full of immense energy. She provides a much-needed counterweight to the frenetic Rodriguez, being more stoic and wry with her humour and attitude, with both her and Rodriguez also able to open up when the time comes. However, their brilliant performances are just one ingredient in the fantastic recipe that makes Tangerine what it is.

While the plot may sound very exploitative, it shocked me with how humanising it was, partly due to its simplicity. Sin-Dee, who has been released from a month-long stint in jail for possession, has returned to her home turf and finds out her boyfriend/pimp has been cheating on her with a white cis woman. Meanwhile Alexandra wants no part in Sin-Dee’s warpath that she’s carving across L.A. and instead only wants her friends and acquaintances to come to a performance she’ll be giving at a local bar. It’s a plot that honestly doesn’t need either of these characters to be transgender, but by making them so it demonstrates the extra countless hurdles trans women face in situations like these, both everyday to extreme.

Within the first scene I found myself already relating to the characters, picking up on bits and pieces that reminded me of my own conversations with other trans feminine people. That has never happened for me before. Ever. Already it had hooked me, but the film kept reeling me in with the way it subtly handled every element. That was what surprised me most, how much of a light touch the film has. While bombastic, colourful, and atmospheric, under Sean S. Baker’s direction Tangerine never tries to pander to a cisgender audience. The dialogue is rapid-fire, there are multiple other trans women of colour introduced throughout the movie, none of the terms and colloquialisms are explained or dwelled upon, and the movie expects anybody who is cis to keep up and not fall behind. Simply put, it treats the cast of trans women like human beings and not the latest trend of headline-grabbing subjects to examine.

This is especially noticeable in the trans women other than Sin-Dee and Alexandra on-screen. There are multiple other black and Latina trans women, trans women who don’t visibly “pass,” who have with facial hair and masculine voices, and zero jokes are made about any of these ladies. That’s just who they are; all the film makes you care about is what they say and do. Along those lines, Tangerine also never shames these women for being sex workers, nor does it ever linger on their bodies voyeuristically when they meet with customers. It’s frankly treated in a very mundane manner, the tone similar to the way any boring minimum-wage job would be showcased. In fact, there’s less on-screen sex in this than the first episode of Game of Thrones.

Tangerine - Cast
Rodriguez (left), Ransone (middle), and Taylor (right) share one of the many perfectly-captured awkward moments in the film

That said, the movie doesn’t dodge the issues that trans women still face, especially trans women of colour sex workers. These factors of their lives are handled deftly, from the way the general populace tries their hardest to avoid eye-contact and engagement to the ambivalent and dismissively patronising nature of law enforcement familiar with them. Bigotry in Tangerine is a backdrop, a veneer that lingers over everything and which is apparent in scene-to-scene. However, it isn’t used like a cudgel to bash a message into the audience in a ham-fisted and clunky manner. Up until the very last scene of the movie, there are no examples of transphobic or transmisogynistic slurs or violence. Instead of casually using such hateful and damaging language and actions, the movie opts for presenting what everyday microaggressions look like. Sin-Dee and Alexandra are frequently misgendered, treated with no consideration, have their mental and emotional states insulted and dismissed, and are just made to feel unwelcome. Yet they bear it all; it obviously affects them, but from their dialogue, facial expressions, and body language you can tell that they’ve dealt with this before, and they’ll deal with it again; they just can’t show how much it hurts.

The concept of chasers is also addressed, something I never see handled well at all in any fiction involving trans characters. Chasers are those who fetishise trans women, attracted to them only because they’re transgender and more often than not have not undergone any Gender Reassignment Surgery. They are usually dangerous, adding an extra layer of threat to day-to-day lives, due to the fact that many prey on trans women and their vulnerabilities, which I’ve seen cause some warranted paranoia and fear of anyone who even gives so much as a compliment. However, in Tangerine one of the few cis characters is a chaser, yet is also a confidant and friend. I wasn’t at all into this at first, but it hit me as the film ran on that the only person these women can rely on other than themselves is this one man who is essentially their most stable source of income and who doesn’t threaten them at all. That is the state of their lives and the sort of choices they are left with. However, his actions do come with consequences, and I was satisfied that the film never once tries to portray him as a saviour, only a very damaged person amongst the rest. The women are only ever grateful for his business, not his fetishistic affections.

Filming with iPhone 5s
Filming with iPhone 5s

The movie is intense, but not always in such an aggressive or violent manner; it simply presents a lot of the pain and anguish trans women face. There’s sincere sorrow and heartache; you’re left wanting to reach out and hug Sin-Dee and Alexandra and all the other women. A lot of this is emphasised with the fact that despite being shot on iPhones, using specialised rigs, that never once pulls you out of the moment. It feels incredibly fluid and natural, with each sweeping and tracking shot, to close-ups and pans that astonished me with how well these smartphone cameras captured beautiful cinematography that rivals the likes of Philip-lorca diCorcia’s famous photography. The only times you might recall that phones are being used is in the more candid shots where the composition and framing bring a certain familiarity that just clicks, adding another visual layer rather than stripping away any potential for more complexity. On a technical and conceptual level, it’s a major breakthrough; it allowed certain scenes to be shot in locations that would’ve been virtually impossible to maneuver a more traditional camera through, it let the actors be more at ease with the filming process, and in fact added to how the general public reacted to some of the more visceral interactions.

Being transgender myself, albeit non-binary, this movie shook me to my core. For an all-too-brief eighty eight minutes, I got to witness a narrative that addressed me and who I am eye-to-eye with respect and sympathy, and then thrust me back into a world where the vast majority wouldn’t even consider such a thing once it ended. I laughed, I winced, and I nearly cried at the bittersweet yet heartfelt ending. I was also relieved to overhear that a lot of people in the audience of my theatre, elderly and white cis people, also felt the same.

I went in expecting either a schlock-filled exploitative mess at worst or a fairly decent handling of transgender matters at best. I left having experienced a story about solidarity, compassion, and pain that made me feel like I was worthwhile, no matter what gets thrown at me. I left the theatre wanting to share more of myself with the world, to give more of myself to the people around me, especially my binary and non-binary transgender friends who have been with me every step of the way. Please, if you can, go and see Tangerine. I genuinely believe it’s a very important movie and should not be missed by anyone.

Jules Low

Jules Low

Staff Writer. Jules Low is a genderfluid trans lady located in Australia. She's a Fine Arts graduate, freelance illustrator, lover of Super Sentai and Power Rangers, self-proclaimed Professor of Zoids and Digimon, raving Halo fan, and the sort of person who reaches the maximum level of characters allowed on World of Warcraft.