Film Review: Tangerine (★★★)

Tangerine PosterI can’t say I had any preconceived expectations before watching Sean Baker’s Tangerine. Actually, I did expect them to play Led Zeppelin’s “Tangerine,” but I guess the rights couldn’t be secured. There aren’t many movies that can evoke the tone and soul of a city, creating a world both lived in and realistic while still maintaining the facade and fantasy. And there’s no greater city known for its beating (and many times broken) heart than the City of Angels where Tangerine is set. At times loud and in your face, Tangerine comprises all of the best, and much of the worst, elements of Los Angeles. Much like its hometown, it’s funny, crazy, and exhausting in equal measure, but you’re definitely glad you stopped by.

Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) has just be released from a 28-day jail stint only to discover her pimp boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone) has cheated on her. Hellbent on finding him, and the woman he’s been seeing, Sin-Dee drags her friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) all over the city in search of the couple.

There are countless movies about characters traipsing around a city over a single day, and Tangerine doesn’t deviate from that course. Sin-Dee and Alexandra run into friends and enemies with paths crossing throughout, illustrating that even in a city as big as Los Angeles, the same streets are well tread. The scenes of the two walking – and there are several – show the sides of Los Angeles not often explored by tourists. While it’s never the seedy underbelly, prostitution runs rampant in broad daylight. At times it’s starts feeling as if every woman on the street is really a streetwalker, and while Baker never condemns our leads or their friends, it’s definitely meant to evoke an aura of empathy.

The song “Toyland,” most famously performed by Doris Day, sets the tone. Los Angeles is a world of fantasy and dreams fulfilled. As one of the character’s says, “Los Angeles is a beautifully wrapped lie.” Sin-Dee’s dreams aren’t exactly defined, but she knows they aren’t fulfilled. Her walk of revenge is a means of “do them just as dirty as they do us,” but will hopefully lead to her finding some type of catharsis. All the characters dream of some type of wish fulfillment, and this is clearest with Alexandra.

Mya Taylor’s performance of “Toyland,” reminiscent of Carey Mulligan’s rendition of “New York, New York” in Shame, plays as a plaintive lament for success and happiness, something that’s constantly beaten down in a city where everyone’s chasing the same thing. And cabdriver Razmik (Karren Karagulian) seeks some type of wish fulfillment as well, even if it’s a temporary respite from his domineering mother-in-law. The ending may not put every character where they want, but it reminds them of the fundamentals of life.

Much of the film’s buzz stems from its being shot on an iPhone, something you won’t immediately notice unless you’re watching it on a big screen; and for the female leads being transgender actresses. The film lives and breathes on the success of Rodriguez and Taylor. Friends before being cast, the camaraderie and friendship between the film doesn’t feel as if it started when the cameras started rolling. It’s evident they share a history, and their conversations are some of the liveliest, and funniest, of the film. When the two separate, the levity changes, but each woman is just superb! The film’s final sequence reminds the women that despite all the crap, their friendship endures and they need each other for more than just survival, but to keep themselves sane and happy. Both actresses deserve long and lengthy careers.

Individually, Rodriguez is loud and crass, and many of her sequences are funny more for her outrageousness. Her few moments with Ransone are hilarious in the way a couple fighting over petty things is hilarious (barring you’re just eavesdropping). Even their conversations show they’re both highly immature, which makes them kind of perfect for each other. Yes, many of these conversations devolve into shrill shouting matches. If I were walking past this on a Saturday night I’d be wondering why someone hadn’t already called the cops. But the humor is that, by the end, nothing’s been accomplished and they’ll probably have this hilariously inappropriate fight a few days later. Relationships are very fluid here, whether it’s Chester and Sin-Dee’s constant bickering or Sin-Dee’s hatred and abduction of Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), the girl presumed to be Chester’s mistress, turning into a tentative friendship. You can be friendly, but you’ll never be friends.

On the flipside is Alexandra, Sin-Dee’s more reserved best friend chasing her dream of being a singer. Taylor has the harder role, playing the straight man to the over-the-top Sin-Dee. Alexandra just wants people to come see her sing, and maybe score a couple bucks prostituting on the side. This is where the easy access to prostitution comes to forefront. A bad encounter with a john leads to the cops being “kind,” because it’s Christmas Eve, by not arresting anyone. Without beating us in the heads, Baker casts an eye towards the prevalence of prostitution, particularly involving transgendered woman. The film never takes the cautionary tale route of putting the women in actual danger but, much like the world around both women, it’s a sad fact of life everyone turns a blind eye to.

There’s also a third story, that of Razmik. Razmik is a local cab driver whom, for several scenes, we watch as he goes about his day, picking up people (both sober and not). There’s little context to who he is or how he fits until he meets Alexandra. And while it’s easy to suss out why his storyline is there, it’s just never as engaging as Alexandra’s or Sin-Dee’s, maybe because he plays as an outsider in the female-centric storyline.

Tangerine can be great fun, but it overstays its welcome, mostly due to Razmik’s storyline which plods out a rather straightforward tale. In a way, it’s like spending a day on the streets of Los Angeles; it’s wonderful and exciting, but after navigating through the crowd for an hour, you’re ready to go home. Rodriguez and Taylor keep you riveted, but they are too often broken apart and bogged down in shrieking and aggressive editing and music. It’s a strong effort, but still has a ways to go.