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SIFF Review – ‘Tangerine’ Takes on Every Label: Black, Brown, Poor, Trans, Woman & Sex Worker

SIFF Review - 'Tangerine' Takes on Every Label: Black, Brown, Poor, Trans, Woman & Sex Worker

After a month-long stint in jail, Sin-Dee Rella is back on the
block on Christmas Eve. Reuniting with best friend Alexandra at the local donut
shop, she learns that her pimp boyfriend Chester has been unfaithful with a
white “fish” (biological woman), which sends her on an immediate
mission to find and confront both the cheaters.

Shot entirely on the iPhone 5s, filmmaker Sean Baker’s
latest has been called weird, outrageous, and “unlike anything you’ve ever
seen.” Granted, the movie follows two young trans women of color working
as prostitutes on the seedy streets of Hollywood, a world seldom seen on even art
house screens. The language is filthy, as are some of the deeds. But the story
is also relatable and sympathetic to its two captivating leads (newcomers
Kitana Rodriguez and Mya Taylor), spinning a tale of friendship and solidarity
in the most unforgiving circumstances.

It’s also timely, in a moment when cultural icons like
Laverne Cox, Janet Mock and Caitlyn Jenner have helped to get the world more
interested and accepting of stories about trans women, however complex society’s
fascination with them may be. Similar to Jill Soloway’s “Transparent”
and dream hampton’s “Treasure,” trans women are said to have been
fully involved in shaping the story here. Baker lived near the filming
locations at the intersection of Santa Monica Blvd and Highland Ave in Los
Angeles, and he and screenwriter Chris Bergoch assembled the script by
researching the real lives of people who lived in the area including Taylor and
Rodriguez.

The movie gets started with a bang, with Sin-Dee stomping
the streets to the sound of a pulsating club soundtrack, on the hunt for information
that can aid in her revenge. It turns out that revenge means finding the
culprit of the cheating and dragging her across half the city by her hair. But
in case we’re tempted to stereotype her as hot-tempered and out of control, Sin-Dee’s
brashness is balanced by the milder-mannered Alexandra, who’s fully focused on
gathering a crowd for her performance set for later that night.

The story to this point is relatively simple and much
depends on the raw energy of Rodriguez and Taylor, who the writers say improvised
many of their scenes. When that wears thin, enter the third story of Armenian
taxi driver and family man Razmik (Karren Karagulian), whose path winds and
intersects with the others, eventually crashing into a fiery showdown involving
all three.

At its most basic, the movie is a clinic in low-budget indie
filmmaking. Shooting with a camera phone allowed the crew to film
inconspicuously on the street, getting intimately close to the action in an
almost documentary style. Even on the big screen we feel the pressure of riding
in Razmik’s suffocating cab, like when he takes a fare that’s way too drunk for
the ride. Anamorphic adapters and
apps gave the iPhone a cinematic look, including the brassy “tangerine
glow of the LA sun that penetrates many of the scenes.

With the passengers on Razmik’s route and the various
hookers, johns, and locals we meet on Sin-Dee’s rampage, it’s a parade of faces
from the less glamorous side of Hollywood. Much of the film plays out like sketch
comedy, especially Sin-Dee’s climactic confrontation back at the donut shop with
Chester (James Ransone), who puts on a “transracial” shtick to rival
James Franco in “Spring Breakers.” But we also get a look at the
harsh realities of the women’s lifestyle, which involves a constant struggle
for money and respect, both of which are in short supply for black and brown trans
women who are also sex workers.

Through Alexandra and Sin-Dee, the film ultimately sends the
message that sisterhood and dogged self-reliance are the only keys to getting
by. As Alexandra quips, “Out here, it’s all about our hustle. And that’s
it.”

Magnolia Pictures releases ‘Tangerine’ in theaters on July
10.

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