12th Oct2015

LFF 2015: ‘Tangerine’ Review

by Mark Allen

Stars: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karren Karagulian, Mickey O’Hagan, James Ransone, Alla Tumanian, Luiza Nersisyan | Written by Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch | Directed by Sean Baker


As a concept, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Tangerine sounds like an overambitious student film project. Filmed entirely on iPhones, we follow the travails of Sindee-Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), a transgender sex worker looking for her pimp boyfriend after she discovers he’s been cheating on her with a “white fish” (a cisgendered white woman). In practice, however, it turns out to be one of the most energetic, audacious and raucous comedies of recent years.

We first meet Sindee in Hollywood on Christmas Eve, having just finished a stint in jail, buying a donut to share with her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor), who’s plugging a big performance at a local bar later that night. Alexandra lets slip that her boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) is guilty of cheating during her time out, which sets Sindee on a trail of destruction that will take her through seedy hotel rooms, the ‘offices’ of drug dealers (fast food joints) and every street corner in Los Angeles. In parallel we follow Razmik (Karren Karagulian), an Armenian taxi driver with a penchant for picking up trans prostitutes. Alexandra quickly separates from Sindee, following through on her promise to dump her if there’s any drama – which, if she’s around, is inevitable – and the three stories unfold more or less separately until a screwball climax which involves almost every character we’ve met so far.

It’s an invigorating, multi-faceted journey through a subculture we’ve mostly only seen depicted as a hard, unforgiving life in the mainstream. The characters face prejudice in their day-to-day lives but react mostly with courage and a determination to remain true to themselves – Sindee, in particular, takes so little shit from anyone that she often dishes it out unremittingly. The bulk of her story sees her hunting down Dinah, the woman who’s cuckolded Sindee, then trawling her across the city to present her as evidence in front of Chester. Her behaviour is rarely anything other than utterly unacceptable, but Rodriguez infuses her performance with such ballsy determination that we root for her nevertheless. The other actors may be less OTT but they make just as distinct an impression, their quirks and overlapping dialogue adding to the film’s veneer of authenticity.

Cementing that authenticity is the photography, which director/camera operator Sean Baker and cinematographer Radium Cheung utilise to a kinetic, ground-level effect of which even Martin Scorsese might be jealous. Scenes move from static close-ups to energetic dolly shots that move in on characters in motion and suggest a vibrancy to their actions that’s reflected both in the myriad social misfits they meet and the film’s score, a bombastic collection of electronic and hip-hop tracks that matches Sindee’s take-no-prisoners attitude perfectly. Perhaps more surprising than the film’s subject matter being depicted in such a compassionate manner is the beauty with which Baker and Cheung capture this world on smartphones, the orange glow of a Californian sunset casting striking silhouettes of the characters and bathing the inner-city streets in a hypnotic glow.

Though the story builds to a farcical finale worthy of Howard Hawks, the film’s coda returns us to ground level and reminds the audience that these characters live in a world where many consider them unwelcome, but that the solidarity found in sharing and recovering from bad experiences is worth more than breaking those bonds over something as petty as a man who conducts his business from a booth in a donut shop. Both one of the year’s sharpest comedies and its sweetest surprise, Tangerine deserves to be seen by anyone and everyone – especially those who think they’ve seen it all already.

Tangerine is showing at the BFI London Film Festival, which runs from 7 – 18 October. Click here for tickets and more information.


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