Director: Sean Baker
Length: 88 Minutes
Genre: Dark Comedy/Drama
WARNING: MILD SPOILERS AHEAD
“Merry Christmas Eve, Bitch”
An opening line that perfectly sets up the next 88 minutes for the audience. A low budget independent movie filmed entirely on iPhones on the streets of California on Christmas Eve, it made a large impact upon its release. The format was enough to get people talking for sure, but what really stood out was its use of transgender actors playing transgender characters. That’s right, real transgender actors playing real transgender characters. The real beauty of it all as well as the fact that they’re transgender is completely secondary to the whole story. Even though there are comments and quips thrown at the characters about it, it’s never some preachy politics or commentary but regular cattiness and remarks from the characters to each other. These characters are allowed to just breathe and be themselves without their identities being at the forefront of what’s happening. They’re characters who just happen to be transgender and are treated like normal human beings. Their identities aren’t used as a tool to bring across a message or as a means for some deeper commentary, they just are and I think that’s what makes the movie even better and adds layers and depth to these characters. It would have been really easy to make transgender sex workers 1-dimensional, but writer/director Sean Baker manages to create characters that you easily empathize with and feel for. Even some of the worst people in the film you end up feeling bad for in one way or another and that’s one hell of an achievement on Sean Baker’s part.
Tangerine succeeds in exploring its characters through a relatively simple story. Sin-Dee is fresh out of jail and finds out her pimp/Boyfriend has been cheating on her with a real woman (or real fish as they say). She sets out walking the streets of California to find Chester and his new woman to confront them. Simple premise, but that’s all it needed to be as it allows there to be more focus on the people in the story and what they’re going through. Every encounter Sin-Dee has as she makes her way closer and closer to Chester reveals a little more of her character and who she is.
Alongside this simple plot is a stylistic approach to the entire film. Its use of iPhones gives the movie a gritty and raw look at the life these characters live in and there’s never a moment you don’t believe it to be true. Almost as if you’re shown a window to the reality rather than a representation of it. I wouldn’t be surprised if the actors were given freedom to improvise their lines because their delivery is incredibly realistic and natural, almost as if you’re watching a documentary rather than a narrative film. The gritty realities of their lives are not censored as we the audience encounter a hotel room turned brothel, a cab driver with a family who partakes in business transactions with our lovely ladies unbeknownst to his wife and baby, a one-take car wash scene where one of our leads gets blown by said cab driver that goes on for a long time, drug use in bar bathrooms and much more. It doesn’t shy away from those realities and because of this can alienate and turn off some of the more sheltered audience members. However, that being said, it does not take away from how great the movie is and is merely a warning for those who might not be ready for overt sexual imagery, drug use and different lifestyles.
“Mary’s at 7”
What this movie shockingly has a lot of is heart. Alongside Sin-Dee’s story is her best friend, Alexandra, trying to get people to come see her Christmas show at Mary’s, a local bar. A show she paid to play at. The character is subtly shown as wanting more than what she currently lives in and just wants a moment to be noticed. One of the strongest parts of the movie is her singing “Toyland” at the bar. She has an absolutely beautiful voice as she sadly croons her way through the song with the only audience member being her best friend Sin-Dee and Dinah, the girl who Chester was having an affair with. Sin-Dee watches with glee and child-like innocence and Alexandra performs her heart out for an audience that isn’t even there. Without spoiling too much, the movie delves into other themes of friendship, betrayal, heartbreak and family. Even though these characters all live a lifestyle that most of us have probably never even experienced, we still engage with their stories and their problems and are there with them all the way through the end. Even a character like Dinah, who starts off as being relatively nonredeemable, ends up having a moment of empathy from the audience where you grow to feel bad for even her, despite her being a terrible person as a whole. It shows us that these characters aren’t born this way but their attitudes are products of their environments, they’ve adapted their mindsets to thrive and survive and on the surface are only seen this way as a by-product of what they’ve gone through. The movie lets the viewer sees deeper into them and realize that down inside they’re not bad people at all and like all of us are only human. All this culminates in a final scene that is incredibly sentimental that leaves you feeling happy despite all the crap that’s just happened.
“Mother****er, I DON’T know you”
What surprised me most about this film was how funny it was. From the start I found myself laughing out loud, which was unexpected. When I first heard of this movie, I thought it was going to be this gritty melodrama about prostitutes and it ended up far exceeding my expectations. The dialogue is fast-paced and the actors have amazing chemistry with each other that they were able to play off each other in such a rapid-fire way. There’s a confrontation near the end (I won’t say details to keep from spoiling it) that is a ton of fun to watch. One person’s struggle becomes our comedic gold and has you laughing the whole way through. The leads are sassy in the best way possible that a lot of their remarks will have you snapping your fingers to how great a comeback that was.
There’s never a dull moment in this film and the 88 minutes zoom by. I remember checking the time at one point, thinking the movie was almost over and saw I was only half-way through. I was shocked because so much had happened up to that point and it left me wondering where the story was going to go from there. It did not disappoint.
If you can handle the subject manner than it’s an absolute solid YES. I think everyone should see this movie because not only is it an achievement in filmmaking but is also a socially important film. It treats it’s characters like humans rather than tools for some sort of political agenda and helps in normalizing transgender lifestyles. Although the sexual content, drug use and strong language might be difficult for some people to watch, if you’re willing and able to look past the surface of that, you will find yourself enjoying a fantastic movie.