Hell hath no fury than a transgender woman scorned. In Sean Baker’s gloriously scathing, but not inhumane, revenge dramedy Tangerine, a recently unleashed jailbird tears through Santa Monica boulevard like a rampaging firebrand, barely leaving any pimp, passerby, taxi driver and sex worker unshaken in a quest to hunt down the one woman (with “vagina and everything”) who, unbeknownst to our incensed protagonist, tended to her part-time boyfriend during her absence. If the brief synopsis above sounds like one crazy cinematic jamboree dreamed up by either Lee Daniels or Harmony Korine, that’s because its pure lack of moral objections and suspension of judgement remind of the art-pop trash classics Spring Breakers and The Paperboy where unhinged characters break into an amoral spree of violence and vindication that only serve to obscure their profound personal shortcomings.
Here, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez’s leonine-haired, leopard-print-clad Sin-Dee doesn’t really go so far as Scarface the shit out an entire boulevard, but having literally dragged the greasy white trash responsible for her pimp boyfriend’s sexual perfidy out of a local hole and across the mean streets of LA on a Christmas eve seems a bit too much. Somewhere along this rumpus, we stop and think – wait a minute, isn’t fidelity the least of all sex workers and pimps’ worries? But hey, who are we to judge? Tangerine avoids taking a moral high ground and portrays the characters as they are, as they survive in their environment, on the fly – wigs, warts and all.
Most of us don’t go around dragging bitches around by their hair, but watching Tangerine unfold on screen feels weirdly, credibly gleeful and cathartic.
The fact that Sin-Dee feels deeply insulted and subsequently resorts to unmitigated malevolence is a manifestation of the character’s insecurities in the first place. Which makes for a gleeful yet relatable viewing experience. Flawed and immediately inflamed at a whiff of betrayal, Sin-Dee is the personification of our own best and worst desires. OK, most of us don’t go around dragging bitches around by their hair, but watching it happen onscreen feels weirdly, credibly cathartic. And there are certain moments in our lives when we wish we could have been a bit like Sin-Dee – take matters into our own hands and teach those who cause us grief some bitch-slapping lessons.
Beside this force of nature is Mya Taylor’s Alexandra, essentially the spitting opposite of flaming friend Sin-Dee. All pacifist, Zen-like approach to life who’d rather hit the road than get embroiled in a commotion. A fledgling chanteuse who, when not singing in empty bars, lives by the trade of business blow-jobs in car wash joints. Girl’s got to eat, after all. It’s through Alexandra we see glimpses of sadness filtered through Tangerine‘s often rowdy picture.
These two seemingly larger-than-life characters become our vessel, our guiding light to the delirious side of LA that’s rarely portrayed in cinema, the seedy backstreets with all their realness. Which makes it quite appropriate that Baker chose to record the whole thing on iPhones. In this recent world of democratised filmmaking, the smartphone is the best go-to paraphernalia for super-low to no-budget projects and Tangerine proves that all your moviemaking dreams are over, as long as you get your asses out of Procrastinationville and use that phone in your pocket to good use. And not just selfies.
But what’s more is that Baker’s movie never, not for once, plays the sentimental value regarding the whole transgender rights campaign. Sure, there’s a scene in which a character gets spat on, but Tangerine plays around a universal compass here. There will always be a bully to those who are simply being different, and in the film’s inspired final shot, it teaches us that as long as we have each other – you and I, baby, we’ll survive.