In stark contrast to most films made about marginal subjects, in both Hollywood and in the independent scene, Sean Baker’s Tangerine was made with an emphasis on collaboration and consultation. Thorough the film, the difference this makes becomes remarkably clear as we trace the overlapping stories of a host of characters through the streets of Los Angeles. Sin-Dee and Alexandra are the focal point of the film, two transwomen who begin – and end – an eventful Christmas Eve together. The two actresses – Kitana KiKi Rodriguez and Mya Taylor – were active participants in the telling of the story: an occurrence that is markedly absent from other film and television dealing with trans issues in recent years; two of the more mainstream examples of trans narratives in media, Dallas Buyers Club and Transparent the most notable examples, veer dramatically in the opposite direction, employing cis men to portray transwomen in leading roles.
In Tangerine, Baker has two stories at work, which are intentionally told in remarkably different ways. A subplot focusing on a traditional family, one of Armenian migrants in Los Angeles, was produced by Baker and Chris Bergoch, Baker’s co-writer, and seeks to highlight the distance between such family structures and the visible LGBTQI community. The primary narrative, though, which works within the wider, looser, narrative structure of the film, centres around the affections and tensions between Alexandra and Sin-Dee in their quest through the streets of LA. The collaborative method of production in this narrative involved a significant degree of improvisation on their part; Baker told 4:3 that they intended their performances to be for the trans community. An emphasis on making media for the trans community, as well as about the trans community, is too scarce in feature films. That the film is a product of collaboration and consultation feels clear throughout, in the intimacy, tenderness, and often brutal moments of realism that punctuate the piece.
Baker’s previous film, Starlet, established the director’s interest in the area of sex work, however, Tangerine broadens the scope of this field further, indicating Baker sees this as a genuine directorial interest rather than a fleeting fascination with a subject matter. His decision to film on an iPhone 5 with special lenses has been characterised as a gimmick, though this idea is merely a surface level reading, the unconventional technology gives familiarity and intimacy to a story that requires it. It perhaps creates more slippage in the barriers between the director and the cast, and it seems fair to speculate that there is a consistency in the principles of filming on an iPhone and making a collaborative work – and that the consistency might be characterised as an attempt to unsettle the vertical hierarchies of filmmaking.
The performances of first-time actresses Mya Taylor and Kitana KiKi Rodriguez are engrossing, natural and believable. At times it feels like Baker moves towards a fictionalised documentary, the filmmakers leaning towards comedic moments, so as to make it through the darker sides of the experiences that Taylor and Rodriguez insisted on depicting. There are confronting, uncomfortable moments in Tangerine; they are all the more confronting because some of them are grounded in comedic approaches. However, if these sequences are the product of a film trying to remain faithful and sincere in its commitment to the subjects it portrays, then their inclusion is more than justified – their erasure would be a sanitisation for privileged sensibilities.
Tangerine engages with America’s cinematic history, particularly with regards to popular culture, seen in Baker and Bergoch’s decision to set their story on Christmas Eve: a symbolic date that resides in the heart of popular Western, and particularly American, narratives. The difference in Tangerine is in the inversion of the traditional approach to this narrative; the idea of family is flipped to show the stark lines of exclusion that a festive ‘familial’ institution is predicated upon. Alone and then together, Alexandra and Sin-Dee exemplify the divisions that all too often cleave between the trans community and an unaccepting wider community that might have once constituted their family. The kinship between them feels all the more poignant and genuine, especially through the contrast Baker provides with the Armenian narrative of a taxi driver, Razmik (Karren Karagulian), and his family.
The Armenian plot concerns itself with the role of family, culture, and prejudice in sexual repression, shame and secrecy. Razmik is a taxi driver who is close with the community of trans sex workers in the area, often paying for their services – he is characterised not as a predator but as a well-liked and respected figure. It becomes clear that he’s particularly fond of Sin-Dee, and having realised she’s been released from prison, he endeavours to find her on Christmas Eve. His mother (Alla Tumanian) is written to embody the both the homophobia and the familial commitment that permeates Razmik’s cultural background. Her actions sketch out the scene for the internal conflict and isolation that defines his character. There’s a great sense of complexity to the various figures that the Armenian narrative of the film portrays, with the relationship between Razmik and his wife Yeva (Luiza Nersisyan) particularly nuanced, especially as the film reaches its end. While it often feels clear that Razmik’s story is a secondary, background sub-plot of sorts, it works to Baker and Bergoch’s credit as writers to have a story that engages with a myriad of intersecting issues – from the immigrant experience, infidelity, acceptance and competing ideas of family – whilst also serving as a compelling parallel narrative.
Another interesting intersection happens in the way the film toys with reality, specifically in Baker’s decision to use a professional cast for the Armenian characters (as it had to be scripted as he couldn’t speak the language) whilst employing first-time actresses almost exclusively in Alexandra and Sin-Dee’s story. It’s an interesting dichotomy to observe as the former story follows a more ‘traditional’ idea of a ‘dysfunctional family Christmas’ whilst the latter deconstructs and re-contextualizes ‘family’ out of the rigidity of the biological family. It’s a process that garners markedly different performances but also compelling and unique stories that engage and challenge with the conventional idea of a Christmas, and in fact a Los Angeles, narrative, using two markedly different outsider perspectives.
With a small budget, Tangerine, makes very good use of what it has, continuing Baker’s focus on intimate stories being intimately told. It’s likely that with a higher budget, the film would have been less intimate, sincere, and collaborative with the world it seeks to depict. With well-written and portrayed characters, as well as a believable and important narrative, Tangerine engages with the world it tries to depict in a respectful and consultative way; the final product is indicative of this rare and successful approach. It’s a fast-paced piece for a fast-paced world, cutting between different stories, locations, and oscillating between the form of fiction and documentary to make stark social criticisms about both culture and America as a whole.
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