“Los Angeles is a beautifully wrapped lie.”
Few of us, if any at all, are the person behind closed doors which we present to others. There’s a built-in pretense to our pretend. The mask that we don, the wall we erect, the front we hide behind. Characters in film often suffer this same fate. Sometimes the closeting works, like the duplicitous nature of last year’s Gone Girl. Conversely, what we get out of Tangerine is a timely story with an absolute sense of self-awareness. There is no in between here. No toiling back and forth with what it thinks it should be and what others might want out of it. This is material stretched beyond its own breaking point; some of the moments just don’t hit, at least for me, instead feeling like pit stops in the journey through Los Angeles’ red light district on Christmas Eve. No matter. Tangerine is a heavily saturated whirling dervish of an experience, literally and figuratively shedding light on the depravity and the life happening all around us. In person, many would cast a glance aside. Like most great movies, this gives us the opportunity to stare in awe.
On the stiletto heels of a recent prison stint, lady of the night Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is on hot pursuit of her boyfriend/pimp Chester. Her 28 days away proved too long for him, moving onto the next drifter looking for comfort. Sin-Dee is helped along by her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor). We know that this won’t end in happily ever after, nor does it want to. Tangerine lays out a simplistically complicated world, rudimentary in design but evolved in its execution. There’s a harsh and evaluative point to it all; that we have never met people like this. Especially in real life. That’s what makes the film’s centralized location so key. Do you walk into a vitamin store and ask for booze? Of course not, the thought wouldn’t even cross your mind. So if you want to find prostitutes, and in this case, all of whom are transgender, would you know where to look? No, because this is specialized. Unique to its square block radius. I’ve always been amazed by the natural human tendency to gravitate towards what we most identify with. I urge you to stick with this exhausting movie. Attract towards the wrong side of the magnet. Give it the opportunity to stick.
Along with our two ladies, we follow the life of cab driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian). We’re introduced to him slowly, riding along as he shuttles all walks of life from point to point. Razmik is, perhaps, the most complex character and the most underdeveloped. By time’s end his rationale and his future are mere muddles of a mess compared to the destinations of the rest. But as he is a driver, so does he direct us around the story. He’s the tour guide. We see old, young, drunk, sobered. Every face imaginable. And still, Razmik is not as he appears, and as his story slowly intertwines with that of the ill-fated Sin-Dee and Alexandra, his Armenian guise is lifted. The trek around the story is long but the fare is just that…fair. You don’t feel cheated.
This movie siphons strength from its distinctiveness, mostly because of the technical aspects. This was made for roughly 100 grand, shot with iPhone 5S’s. You wonder how they achieved it. The white balance, the color correction, the exposure rate? All because of an app, of course. Tangerine starts a little messy and works itself out, as though the filmmaker Sean Baker grew along with the process of capturing footage through the same device probably within your arm’s reach. It’s undeniably influenced by the story of Midnight Cowboy infused with the chaos of Do the Right Thing and the structural imbalance of Harmony Korine.
The cuts back and forth early are often and interrupting. But the film crescendos, slowly building towards a more than welcome loudmouth climax that brings laughs, drama, and timely reveals. Laurels and awards won’t make their way around to this movie. Few have time for a small-scale story made on a pocket-sized device told as intimately as possible. Maybe that’s because it’s always been so hard to reward honesty, to stay true to what is in fact absolutely true. Baker’s film may not be perfect, but it is emphatically revolutionary. The streets are the home to many. And as we all know, our definition of home shapes our own identities. Tangerine posits that among the grime and the grit of the world, the motherless staggering along and stepping on cracks without abandon, that maybe, just maybe, there is a ripe soul to be found. Beauty is more than skin deep.
“Merry Christmas Eve, b****!”
Rating: 4 out of 5