If the smell of tangerine slowly becomes a symbolic expression of masking the truth, then it is also a reference point for the film’s color palette. Orange-yellow hues dominate the LA streets, draping itself onto the skin of the characters, bouncing off all the gritty walls of buildings. Such a saturation also leaves golden slivers of light as highlights on our protagonists, giving them a burnt-out neon flare akin to the night club and fast food edifices that dominate the streets they walk. I mention this because the setting plays a huge part in dictating the thematic intensity of Sean Baker’s “Tangerine,” a film in which truths come at you like a slap in the face such that the smell of a tangerine cannot cover up; the foulness of dishonesty and the golden slivers of light are the gilded coatings that hide a brutal truth. As the film would show, when night falls, the gilded coating and smell of freshness fades and the reality seems to shift into its honest form. This film is mostly vicious, unapologetic, and revealing but it swiftly becomes a film about loneliness, a loneliness entrenched in a sense of obscure revelation, where identity and morality are always in jeopardy. For that, the characters in this film live in a tragedy of clouded honesty.
It is fitting that the characters Sin-Dee and Alexandria are sex workers, in that case, because their roaming constitutes as some physical representation of clouded truth; an uncertainty in direction. It is not to say that Parker demeans the profession. Indeed, the film treats prostitution as a business and these to women know the business. They perform sexual favors for money, and there are a lot of moments where that is portrayed. But for all the imagery of sex and sexual acts, it is fitting that making love is still an important part to these women. Maybe too much for Sin-Dee, who has just gotten out of jail and is told by Alexandria, her best friend, that her pimp and boyfriend, Chester, has a new girl, white girl or a, “real fish.” This phrase pertaining to the fact that this new girl is a traditional girl while Sin-Dee and Alexandria are trans. Sin-Dee is played by Kitina Kiki Rodriguez, who is transgender, with fiery zeal and a pridefully oblivious nature to her surroundings. Most of her exchanges with people involve her getting the information she needs and leaving the other out to dry. There is a brash comedy involved with her social methods, one that is revealed to be a foil for her personality. Even her voice is unique in the way it lisps, yet she rockets through her words so fast it resembles a funky and raw throwback to classic Hollywood; fitting that this film takes place in a world Hollywood would never dare to go. Alexandria is played by Mya Taylor. If Rodriguez brings this fresh feistiness then Taylor has some sort of stoic presence, where her honor illuminates her strength, albeit with some lack of control. In one scene, an unfair customer witnesses her strength in an amusingly effective fashion as he is pulled down the street by Alexandria. There is another important story arc involving an Armenian cabbie who is a consistent customer of Alexandria and may have feelings for Sin-Dee, though his own situation may complicate those feelings.
In one way, “Tangerine,” is a film about encounters, much like a film previously reviewed, “Grandma.” Yet, these encounters do not have their own structural dynamics to identify themselves as miniature stories within the story. But in a more crucial manner, “Tangerine,” is about trajectories. We observe the trajectories of these characters so intimately that we begin to understand the geography of their West Hollywood landscape. Moreover, every step they take only furthers the dramatic weight that is established at the beginning. Maybe the ensemble of characters are all tied together with rubber bands such that the farther their trajectory takes them, the more tension is applied to bring them all back together.
Of course, if one desires to watch this film then they would probably have heard that it was shot on an iPhone. There is certainly a characteristic texture to the way the vibrant sunlight slashes through the windows and ricochets off the brick and concrete. Yet, it does not determine the totality of the film. It might lend to the way in which the camera violently reacts and plays with Sin-Dee and the heated trajectory taken by our protagonists. Other than that, it it works, it’s gritty, but it feels more immediate and invigorating.
Though the film begins with pace and ferocity and it builds from this fuming point slowly throughout the film, it ignites and explodes. The fallout of the explosion exposes a vulnerability that is both shocking and deeply gentle. Our protagonists in revealing their longings also reveal a human struggle. This is an LGBT film, but it doesn’t not preach it on a soap box. Rather, it is more concerned about the story of a certain group pf people who usually don’t have stories written for them. Not surprisingly, it becomes humanistic. And like the Hollywood aura of illusion, we find that this film carries with it both a timely, topical theme but also a universality as it explores how we cope with loneliness, how we protect ourselves by creating some sort of facade. Baker’s unique approach to the story is no gimmick. It becomes more illuminating.