Tangerine, the new film by Sean Baker, portrays a realism that is at once immersive and fresh. The film, shot entirely on cell-phone cameras from seemingly every possible angle, invites the audience into a very personal story.
Edited together with lightning-quick cuts and overlaid with jarring sounds, Tangerine’s aesthetic takes some time to get used to. At first it almost seems like a collection of security camera footage filmed at a suffocatingly close proximity. However, as the film’s stories develop, that closeness becomes its strongest feature. The colloquial dialogue invites you into the characters’ world as the storylines alternate between different points of view. The characters surround the viewer at all times making it hard to get the sound of their voices out of your head.
The film begins in a donut shop with a conversation between Sin-Dee and her friend Alexandra. Drenched in the morning light, this is the first time the two have spoken since Sin-Dee’s release from jail earlier that day. Their conversation heats up when Sin-Dee asks Alexandra about her own boyfriend and pimp, Chester. Alexandra immediately reveals the bad news that Chester has been cheating on Sin-Dee. This prompts Sin-Dee to stomp through the sun-kissed streets of Los Angeles to hunt Chester down.
The other storyline in the film follows Razmik the cabdriver, an Armenian émigré who drives a taxi in order to support his wife and young daughter under the watchful eye of his mother-in-law. Unlike the high-octane adventure of the ladies’ narrative, Razmik’s story is set at a more gradual pace. His time on screen allows the audience to take a deep breath in the midst of Sin-Dee’s chaotic search. And while the whereabouts of Chester assumes the form of a missing-person manhunt that is a top priority, the mysterious circumstances surrounding Razmik’s character are equally important. On one hand is a battle to find someone on the crowded and deceptive streets, and on the other, is Razmik’s inner-turmoil that threatens to destroy his stable household.
One of the strongest contrasts between the characters of the two storylines is their varying levels of self-confidence. Sin-Dee and Alexandra are transgendered, and their intake of estrogen has stripped away their masculine qualities, “except [for their] arms” and genitals. We aren’t even completely sure what led them both to a life of prostitution. And while that story may be tragic, Baker decides to focus on the strength of their personalities. They stand up to their adversaries. When Alexandra stops to get into a man’s car and he tries to withhold payment, she threatens, “You forget that I have a dick too.” This may be matter of fact, but it is rare to see a character in a film show such toughness and bluntness as both a man and woman at once.
Razmik, on the other hand, is still in the closet. While he has a wife at home, he solicits transgendered prostitutes on the job. We feel his discomfort in the extreme close-ups of his face throughout the film. Sometimes his eyes are fixed on an unknown object way past the horizon. He sweats and looks off to the side and his mouth quivers. He lies to his family and in turn, lies to himself.
Tangerine captures a very specific and marginalized culture that mainstream moviegoers aren’t accustomed to seeing. The film’s themes speak directly to a number of relevant social issues: inner city turmoil, gender norms, sexual exploitation and orientation, economic injustice, and racial identity. Instead of weaving together these themes into a heavy-handed and sensationalized melodrama, Baker tells a realistic story.
Deliberate or not, this realism imparts a cynicism onto the film that cannot be overlooked. Baker accomplishes this through his use of non-professional actors and a low production budget.
The fact that a film of Tangerine’s ilk and subject matter not only exists, but is also being widely distributed in theatres, shows a respect for the audience that is uncommon with many pictures today. Baker trusts that his audience will accept such a rough look and a slice-of-life story devoid of payoffs or big reveals. The directness in how the characters address one another isn’t flashy or tension inducing, but it’s relatable. Oftentimes the scenes blend together and much of the dialogue feels like it’s one conversation full of emotional highs and lows. This is ultimately true to so many daily human interactions – short on glory and resolve. Tangerine is a response to how we coexist as one conflicted human race amongst a mess of complex circumstance.
Tangerine is currently playing in a number of theatres across North America. It can be seen in Toronto at The Carlton Cinema.
Check out the ‘red band’ trailer below: