“Merry Christmas Eve, bitch!” The opening line of Tangerine wastes no time in setting up the tone and pace for one of the most relentlessly energetic and fierce films to hit the big screen this year.
Centring on two transgender sex workers on the streets of downtown Los Angeles, the unstoppable Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is released from prison to learn that her boyfriend and pimp, Chester, has cheated on her with another woman called Dinah. While her friend, Alexandra (Mya Taylor), unsuccessfully tries to calm her down, Sin-Dee sets out on a mission to track Dinah down and confront Chester about his indiscretion.
From there on out it’s a mile-a-minute of pure, dizzying delight. The camera physically races to keep up with the protagonists as they move through the streets of Santa Monica; both the characters and the film itself never stop for a second. While Tangerine has rightly been discussed for being shot on an adapted iPhone 5s – an innovative move that opens up huge possibilities in the arena of low-budget filmmaking – this formal technique quickly takes a backseat in terms of all the elements that contribute to making this film such a breath of fresh air.
Director Sean Baker actively challenges the prejudice these marginalised characters are often subjected to within film and really humanises all of its characters. This is mostly with regards to Sin-Dee and Alexandra as transgender women of colour who are also sex workers, but extends this compassion to characters like Dinah too, who plays a sex worker and drug addict. Rodriguez and Taylor – transgender women playing transgender roles – being actively involved in the creation of the film has arguably given a level of authenticity that’s allowed its minority characters to be treated with a level of nuance. As this is sadly such a rarity, this departure from the tired norm is a refreshing one.
The characters are not caricatures and are never reduced to their political identity as marginal characters. By way of the protagonists always being three dimensional, the film’s more tender moments are allowed to come through in a realistic way. Rodriguez is an absolute powerhouse of sass while still managing to convey vulnerability, a lot of which comes through in the film’s very satisfying final scenes.
Tangerine can be praised in a multitude of ways, but what really stands out is just how vibrant it is in every possible way. From the garish aesthetic, to the charged soundtrack, to the powerful screen presence of both lead women, it’s a film that courses pure energy through every frame and every wildly-gesticulated line of dialogue. It fizzes and pops at every turn and is genuinely one of the funnest films you’ll see this year.