“Los Angeles is a beautifully wrapped lie”
‘Twas the night before Christmas and Tinseltown’s intersection of Santa Monica and Highland is bustling. A hotbed of sex work and drug use, Sean Baker‘s unfiltered Tangerine takes us into a world we haven’t quite seen on the big screen—especially not from a major distributor like Magnolia Pictures—by following three characters on a mission towards personal joy they know Santa won’t be bringing this year. For Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) this means the satisfaction of retribution against the boyfriend she learned cheated on her while she was incarcerated for a month. Alexandra (Mya Taylor) yearns for the self-esteem boost that arrives with the acceptance and applause of close friends. And Razmik’s (Karren Karagulian) Armenian cabbie is desperate to escape the stifling oppression of his family.
A project proving so in-the-moment and raw in its depiction of Hollywood’s underground and its street workers’ tumultuous lives juggling the job and personal relationships, I’m not sure Baker could have captured its unique essence on anything but a phone. Shot entirely with an iPhone 5S, the film puts us on the ground, up-close and personal to the action. When the beat-driven soundtrack enters it’s as though Baker has simply pressed play to conjure an emotionally kinetic theme song for his subject at that particular instance. The slight fish-eye of the frame ensures we don’t simply sit back and watch a movie; its curved edges inviting us to experience this warped yuletide adventure in its messy honesty without clichéd tradition dictating its art.
Instead it’s life dictating every move courtesy of the extensive research into this fringe society that Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch undertook, the gleaning of true-to-life stories told by Rodriguez and Taylor about what goes on in this part of town, and the authentic cultural touches added to Razmik’s plot thread by Karagulian himself. It’s disjointed at first as we switch back and forth between Sin-Dee on the warpath and Razmik enduring the routine of another day driving California’s eclectic brood around, Alexandra’s eventual diversion onto her own journey confusing it even more. But once Razmik’s trajectory brings him upon the girls to reveal the connection his proclivities have cultivated, everything begins to come into focus and Tangerine‘s pure situational hilarity peels away to expose the drama underneath.
It doesn’t initially seem as though that drama will dig deeper than the surface of a potential cat-fight as Sin-Dee unleashes fire on anyone who might know where her lying, cheating Chester (James Ransone) can be found. Her one-track mind is filled with bile to the point where her best friend can no longer talk her down from the ledge of landing back in jail. It’s a beautiful thing to behold too because seedy characters like Chester’s business partner in the sex and drug game (Ian Edwards‘ Nash) or motel brothel Madam Jillian (Chelcie Lynn) know her when she arrives and brace for the whirlwind. You have to feel sorry for them and Sin-Dee’s ultimate victim Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), the unlucky woman who let her pimp test the merchandise.
Despite her chaos, however, we do find some semblance of normalcy through Alexandra and Razmik—compassion, empathy, and hope. Neither is without their own bouts with comically gold controversy as Scott Krinsky and Ana Foxx discover respectively, but their convergence finds a glimmer of that joy they all seek. Unfortunately for them, Sin-Dee’s wake isn’t to be avoided for too long as the film culminates in an epic showdown of moral and ethical sin at the local Donut Time. Adultery, backstabbing betrayal, and sexual bigotry come to a head in a climax as funny as it is profound in its heart-breaking honesty. Just when you think this motley trio has found security in their identities, the fragility of being forced into living double lives takes its toll.
And this is what makes Tangerine so crucial. For the first three quarters of the film, cast and crew find themselves in a sort of safe zone from the tragic horror of America’s lack of acceptance. Both Sin-Dee and Alexandra are treated as women without an eye batted, their being transgender relegated to a simple fact as blunt and inconsequential as the color of their hair. Prostitution aside, they’re depicted as the human beings they are without judgment beyond their actions. Only when an outsider joins the fray does the notion of what’s onscreen being more than a lover’s spat get introduced. First it’s for humor’s sake—that block is definitely not for you, Foxx—and then it’s to remind us how much more suffering transgenders must endure.
To be able to move from the casual jokiness of the beginning towards the unfortunate hate crime and retooling of emotional priorities in its aftermath at the end is a testament to the strength of these characters beyond the comedy. Rodriguez, Taylor, Karagulian, and the rest all have the wonderful ability to laugh at themselves and welcome us in as a result. Their attitudes are heightened to a certain extent with hyperbolic reactions, but you cannot blame them because of what awaits outside the confines of this stretch of real estate. It only takes one instance of unjust animosity to make the spitfire and confidence wash away into fear and unwarranted guilt. It’s not enough to have to survive romantic drama; they must also fight daily to live.
Tragically that sense of “normalcy” at the start is merely a façade—a fantasy of equality wherein Sin-Dee, Alexandra, and Razmik only have to worry about the same issues everyone must via overblown melodrama and theatrics. It’s nice while it lasts, though, and hopefully those who do need to be reminded that transgenders are as human as they will find a way to enjoy the laughter and unhinged craziness enough to forget these women weren’t born in the bodies their gender requires. If the comedy can level the field like that so those people can feel the impact of the ending and understand the pain endured—extreme enough to bring betrayed and betrayer together despite their transgressions—maybe our country can begin to change.
 Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, James Ransone and Mya Taylor in TANGERINE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
 Mickey O’Hagan and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in TANGERINE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
 Mya Taylor in TANGERINE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.