About midway through Tangerine, a cab driver (Karren Karagulian) pulls into a car wash with Alexandra (Mya Taylor), one of the transgender prostitutes he regularly hires for brief, sexual encounters during his shifts. The ensuing single take – captured, as the entire film is, by a mobile phone adapted with a widescreen lens – is a stunner. We watch from the back seat as the narrowed daylight transforms the pair into silhouettes; meanwhile, beyond their figures, the colors of the machinery are filtered through the prism of water on the windshield. The moment pulses with humor (will the cabbie “finish” in time?), tawdriness and a strange, persistent beauty – which is a good way of describing Tangerine altogether.
Directed by Sean Baker – who also served as co-cinematographer alongside Radium Cheung – Tangerine is first and foremost a burst of startling, saturated imagery. Set on the streets of Hollywood over the course of a single Christmas Eve, the movie seems to follow the soft glow of that setting sun (it’s in nearly every frame). The vérité settings – dingy storefronts and suspicious passersby – at first seem at odds with the heightened aesthetic, until you realize that the two elements are melding, as they do in that car wash scene, into something both ugly and ethereal.
Given its discordant nature, it takes a bit to settle into the movie’s groove. It doesn’t help that some of the clumsiest camerawork takes place right at the start, in which a conversation between Alexandra and her best friend and colleague, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), is chopped into an awkward, shot-reverse-shot sequence (the widescreen lens isn’t helpful in the interior scenes). What’s more, the performances start out at 11 and take a bit to find their footing (both Rodriguez and Taylor are relative novices to the screen). The narrative proper concerns Sin-Dee’s discovery, via Alexandra, that her pimp and lover had cheated on her while she served a brief jail stint. This sends Sin-Dee into a whirlwind of profanity-laced investigation and retribution that takes us through some of the seedier alleys and hotel rooms of Hollywood.
Tangerine is first and foremost a burst of startling, saturated imagery.
Tangerine has a nonchalant air about the particular subculture it explores, but there is no denying the desperation that defines the characters’ lives – that cabbie included. From his frantic scanning of the sidewalks to the sad souls paying for various sex acts in a crowded hotel room to Alexandra’s lonely performance at a karaoke bar, these are all people scrambling for scraps of genuine human connection, often in the last places they’re likely to find it.
Yet when they do, even for the briefest of moments, Tangerine blossoms. Another oddly beautiful scene takes place between Sin-Dee and Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), the “other woman” whom Sin-Dee has finally tracked down. After forcefully dragging her to Alexandra’s performance, the three women sit in a cramped backstage bathroom that someone has half-heartedly tried to decorate with a disco ball. As pinpoints of light play over their faces, Sin-Dee re-applies some of Dinah’s make-up with a gentle touch.
Another moment of connection takes place at the end, and it too involves an act of graciousness in regard to appearance. Alexandra and Sin-Dee have ended their long, wandering day at an all-night laundromat, forced there after having had urine thrown at them by a passing car full of taunting dudes. The sun has long gone down at this point, yet it’s in this fluorescent storefront that Tangerine seems brightest. Christmas has finally come.