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The story, which takes place over the course of a single day, follows trans prostitutes Sin-Dee Rella (Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Taylor). The former has just been released from prison after taking a drug charge for her boyfriend and pimp, Chester (James Ransone), and the latter is preparing to perform a number of Christmas songs at a nearby club that evening. When Alexandra accidentally reveals to Sin-Dee that Chester cheated on her while she was in jail, she goes on a city-wide hunt to find either him or his "real fish" (cisgender) fling, Dinah (Mickey O'Hagan). Meanwhile, there is also a subplot about a taxi driver named Razmik (Karren Karagulian), whose regular visits to Alexandra, Sin-Dee, and others are still a secret he keeps from his wife (Luiza Nersisyan), daughter, and mother-in-law (Alla Tumanian).
Director Sean Baker (who helmed the overwhelmingly lovely Starlet) has a specific, wildly energetic vision that is aided by the flexibility and simplicity of the cell phone cameras. Sin-Dee is a force of nature, illustrated not just by Rodriguez's performance but also Baker's visual style, which comes to life alongside Sin-Dee's jealousy. When she first learns of Chester's infidelity, a boisterous rap beat rises up on the soundtrack, and both she and the camera swoop out of Donut Time (seemingly the center of Alexandra and Sin-Dee's neighborhood) and down the street with an exhilarating urgency. Sin-Dee bursts into back rooms, harasses acquaintances, and knocks over bystanders in her quest to locate Dinah, and the Baker matches her energy every step of the way, the movie practically pulsating with anarchic energy. As seen through Sin-Dee's rage, L.A. practically glows in the background, bursting with color and detail, including Sin-Dee's many friends and acquaintances. Meanwhile, other equally colorful people end up in Razmik's cab (including a slouching Native American man, played by the legendary Clu Gulager).
When dealing with most of the characters' sharply-defined personalities, Tangerine works as a comedy, especially as the film builds to a chaotic, climactic confrontation between Sin-Dee, Alexandra, Chester, Dinah, Razmik, and several other characters. However, Sin-Dee is a conundrum, whose abusive and frequently mean-spirited personality is meant to be funny. Her desire to confront Chester comes from a genuine fear that either Chester, society, or both consider Dinah to be a more authentic woman than she is, but her method of expressing it is essentially assault and battery. Violence as comedy may date back to The Three Stooges, but Baker tries to have his cake and eat it too, alternating between the heightened reality occupied by Sin-Dee and the visuals to the real world of Razmik's arc and the movie's sweet closing moments. Sin-Dee's extreme nature is counterbalanced by Alexandra, but the emotional sincerity of their relationship leaves the viewer little choice but to look at Sin-Dee's craziness as genuinely dangerous.
Sin-Dee is also a character that exists on the edge of caricature. Given the film ends on an emotionally honest note rather than an exaggerated one (not to mention the sincerity of Starlet), there's a sense that Baker believes Tangerine is an honest portrait of what life is like for transgender women, but Rodriguez is so outrageous that the line between the character and the culture gets a little muddled. If the film spent more time with Alexandra and relegated Sin-Dee to a supporting role, Taylor's nuanced performance might've evened the keel (so much is conveyed in her wry, withering glances), but Baker can't resist Rodriguez as the sassier, more crowd-pleasing choice. It's unfair to expect Tangerine to represent the entire transgender community, but with so few examples of movies made for and about trans people, it's worth remembering that Baker is on outside looking in, and that even with the best intentions, there's a chance that his research fit the film instead of vice versa. The movie is many things worth celebrating: fresh, passionate, and new. Let's also hope it's something else: one of many more to come.
The movie's stylish poster artwork survives the leap to home video, featuring the movie's two protagonists in silhouette against a beautiful sunset backdrop of purple and orange. The back cover goes for a more aggressive approach, with glittery, flowery text and an eccentric mix of fonts. The single-disc release comes in an eco-friendly Viva Elite Blu-ray case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
The majority of viewers will probably stumble on Tangerine for one of two reasons: its transgender stars, or the fact that the film was shot on the iPhone using an anamorphic attachment by Moondog Laboratories and the FiLMiC Pro app. Presented on Blu-ray in 2:39:1 1080p AVC, the film looks every bit as vibrant as its characters. Baker and Radium Cheung (who share DP credit) have taken Los Angeles and amped it, so that the blue skies, red lipstick, and yellow Donut Time counters all pop with a certain visual electricity. Colors even appear to bleed just a touch at times, possibly a minor artifact stemming from the low-tech equipment. However, other than that and a few faintly pasty faces, there's really no evidence that the production didn't use professional digital equipment, with excellent fine detail throughout, no visible artifacting or banding, and even a sheen of what looks like film grain. As the film descends into night, the overall appearance of the image takes on a slightly less heightened feel, but Baker and Cheung then provide a few more stylish set-ups, including a club bathroom bathed in pink light with smaller lights crawling the walls. At times, highlights can blow out, but it's hard to hold it against the disc given the pushed appearance is clearly intentional.
Sound is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which not only picks up a significant amount of street ambiance that really contributes to the overall vibe of L.A. as seen in the movie, but also gets plenty of opportunities to go big and flashy with the multiple pulsating hip-hop tracks that crank up whenever Sin-Dee closes in on one of her many targets. There's also an authentic car wash sequence (although the car wash sound itself is hardly the most attention-grabbing aspect of the scene), and even one musical performance that provide other opportunities for the mix to impress. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and French and Spanish subtitles are also included.
A surprisingly lengthy selection of video extras are included on the disc. The first three features essentially make up a complete behind-the-scenes documentary, although the balance is a little odd. "Catching Up With Kiki and Mya: Experiences, Characters, and the Big Screen" (10:15) separates the film's two leads into their own piece, which covers how they became involved with the film, their background and interest in acting, what it was like to see the finished film, and working with each other. It's also clear just seeing the pair interact as themselves how much the film was influenced by their personalities and their dynamic. Following this, "Walking the Streets: Exploring the Story and Characters" (18:01) and "Finding the Actors: Completing the Cast of Tangerine" (20:35) cover pretty much everything else: the genesis of the story, the crew's history with writer/director Sean Baker, shooting the movie on the iPhone, and assembling the rest of the cast. Although the sequestering of Kiki and Mya in their own featurette and out of the more general featurettes is odd, these featurettes paint a pretty complete picture of the production and feature a number of interesting perspectives on the production. The only minor bummer is the unnecessary and occasionally arbitrary inclusion of a ton of clip footage from the film itself.
One more video extra is also offered: a Tangerine Visual Style Test (2:19) is, unsurprisingly, a reel of footage designed to show off the iPhone's visual capabilities. It plays out like a music video, essentially, and the presence of Rodriguez and Taylor makes it almost seem like another glimpse of the film's characters, maybe on a day before the one on which the film is set.
Trailers for Experimenter, Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon, The Little Death, The Wolfpack, and promos for Chideo and axsTV play before the main menu. An original theatrical trailer for Tangerine is also included.
Although there are caveats, Tangerine is definitely a film worth seeing, one that breaks social and cultural ground while also taking advantage of some technological savvy. Recommended.
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