Over the lemon linked, scratched up table of some anonymous fast food joint, “Toyland” plays as a pair of best friends catch up with one another as one of them, the fiery SinDee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), arrives back on the street fresh out of prison. When Alexandra (Mya Taylor) lets it slip that her pimp-cum-boyfriend has been unfaithful, SinDee gets right up and blazes a trail through Los Angeles to find the woman with whom he cheated as well as his sorry ass. And thus, three or so minutes in, Sean Baker’s Tangerine is just that: a boldly blazing, even incendiary work of tragicomedy.
Both Alexandra and SinDee are transgender sex workers, as skilled at their trade as they are sharp with their tongue. Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch are incredibly adept at crafting specific and distinctive voices for their characters, particularly the acuteness that is granted to both of the leads. Though much of the film is embroiled in the “drama” of SinDee and her cheating beau Chester, Baker allows Alexandra her own plot, in addition to an Armenian taxi driver, Razmik (Karren Karagulian), and the woman with whom Chester cheated on SinDee, Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan). The culmination of these various narrative threads, and the traipsing around Los Angeles, is a rather poignant look at broken class, race, and broken dreams.
While much of the infidelity/revenge scenario is utilized for humor, there’s something devastating that exists under the surface. Dinah is a cisgendered woman, so the wrath that SinDee has and that fuels her entire journey through LA seems warranted: despite it being a uniquely queernormative universe, the film doesn’t ignore this idea of cisnormative standards outside of this particular environment. As far as people who are constantly working on themselves in terms of self-actualization, finding out that her boyfriend has been having sex with “a real fish”, as she says, catalyzes a kind of heartbreak that manifests as fury. There is ever the suggestion that the anxiety and vulnerability behind the anger is a product of the world around her telling Sin-Dee that she, a transgender woman of color, is inherently inferior to Dinah, a cisgendered white woman. One scene has the two of them smoking what looks like crack together, but SinDee carefully adjusts Dinah’s hair, pushing it behind her ears, as if trying to make a point of connection or identification, or perhaps there’s a kind of yearning behind that momentary touch. But in a pinch, the self she has been crafting took a hit. But she doesn’t back down. A strength and a refusal to submit is there even in Sin-Dee’s most vulnerable moments.
Alexandra, on the other hand, spends her time passing out flyers for her performance at a club that night. She gives it to them with a gentle force, the kind your friend gives when they want you to see their band play or something. But, in another sly piece of commentary, the kind of performance Alexandra puts on is a cabaret act. She paints her face in the makeup, and Baker shoots from above, even in close up, presenting this performer as the person Alexandra most wants to be. She sings “Toyland” in a cooing, jazzy style evocative of Sarah Vaughn, and in that spotlight, it looks like Alexandra is home.
Which is particularly interesting as much of the film is spent tracking these folks from behind, as they walk. And walk. And walk. In good art house tradition, they walk a lot, and we follow them. It’s as much of a journey and goal, to be validated and whatnot, as any sequence of walking in any other film. But as they pass through different neighborhoods, go to different shops and convenient stores, there’s writing on the wall. “Collateral is not necessary.” The most important shot of the film, though, is watching SinDee walk past well to do houses bedecked with Christmas lights. Indicative of at the very least a middle class lifestyle, it’s exactly what these women are unable to attain for a bevy of reasons. A life on the stage and a stable, monogamous relationship with someone offer the illusory possibility of that. But those middle class homes with nice TVs and sparkling lights don’t guarantee happiness.
The Armenian cab driver deals with client after client, and takes a break by making a transaction with Alexandra. The curious thing about this encounter is that it doesn’t seem like merely an exchange of goods for services. It appears as if it is a release for them both, like a kind of intimacy exists between the two. It just so happens that this cab driver has a wife and kids, but when we finally see that, we understand that not all is well at home.
Tinged in a beautiful citrus palette, of course, Baker’s frames are gorgeously composed. There are these open spaces, where vulnerability becomes a commodity. That it is shot on an iPhone perhaps amplifies this idea of the Millennial Generation being plagued with an existential ennui, where the American Dream is not only not attainable for everyone, but also not what it’s cracked up to be. Using acutely baroque dialogue, in a kind of neo-screwball way, to use humor as a mask for melancholy, Sean Baker has gathered two incredible performers and made a deeply affecting film about race, class, the roles we play for ourselves and for others, and the broken dreams on Sunset Boulevard.