The marquee outside the Egyptian calls Tangerine a comedic romp, which is somewhat misleading. It’s true that the movie is outrageous, daring, and funny. But calling it a romp is akin to calling a trans sex worker a young, urban, professional. It’s a description that barely scratches the surface.
Tangerine is a movie that scratches well below the surface. In fact, it hits you squarely below the belt, over and over, all the while murmuring sweet apologies in your ear, telling you that everything will be alright, it will be over soon. From the opening scene, with Sin-dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) celebrating Sin-dee’s Christmas Eve release from lock up at the Donut Time on Santa Monica and Highland, through the many adventures and misadventures the pair have, to the abrupt ending in a seedy laundromat, the movie remains frank and unapologetic.
Nor should there be any apology.
Rodriguez and Taylor’s portrayals as sex workers is honest and earnest. Their relationship feels real. And so it should, considering that Rodriguez and Taylor are real life friends.
“Mya and Kiki had this camaraderie together,” says Sean Baker, the film’s writer and director, of their casting. “There was something about it that I thought could make a perfect duo, I could see the two of them on the screen. And it was at that point that I told them I want to make a film with both of them.”
Baker’s vision, inspired by Rodriguez and Taylor, had one ultimate goal: keep it real.
“Kiki and Mya said realism was extremely important to them,” explains Baker. “They wanted to show what life was like for women who work that area.”
The realism extends beyond the characters. Shot in and around the actress’ neighborhood, the film is a visual love poem to Los Angeles, where Los Angeles plays the part of the flawed, crazy, but beautiful ex-lover you sometimes jump in the sack with after reminiscing for too long over too many tequila shots and promise to text the next day but never do.
The story is simple. Sin-dee meets up with Alexandra only to discover that her pimp, played by The Wire’s James Ransone, had been cheating on her with Dinah while she was away. Sin-dee’s not the type of person to take that sort of thing lying down, thus, hijinks ensue. Throw in a few more sex workers, a down-low Armenian cab driver trying to escape from his evil mother-in-law, some explicit drug use, and the kind of razor-sharp dialogue that can only come from someone who’s lived what they’re talking about, and you’ve got your summer tragedy cum comedy.
The realness, though, is what makes this film so special. The trans characters are played by trans actresses. Sex workers are portrayed as real people, more than the sum of their career choices. Even the clichéd story of the Armenian cab driver and his family avoids falling into the classic Hollywood plot trap, although only by the skin of its teeth.
This film will make you laugh. It will break your heart. It will make you so uncomfortable you’ll need to look away. Take a break from the blockbuster summer movie schlock and go see a film that will make you want to talk about it for hours afterward and maybe throw back a few shots of tequila. Who know, maybe that flawed, crazy, but beautiful ex-lover may come along.
Tangerine is currently playing at the SIFF Cinema Egyptian Theatre. Check here for more info or tickets.