Stomping the Ground: A Review of Sean Baker’s ‘Tangerine’

Tangerine

The first thing most people learned about Tangerine, the latest film by director Sean Baker (Starlet), was that it was shot on an iPhone. From the information I’ve gathered it is pretty clear that this is not the first movie to have been entirely shot using a phone, but it’s certainly the highest profile one – which is saying a lot considering Tangerine is a micro-budget independent production. So yeah, the image quality in Tangerine can be grainy and jerky in scenes with lots of movement, but the iPhone aesthetic is particularly well suited for the story of the very hectic Christmas Eve of two Los Angeles trans prostitutes.

Our protagonists are Sin-dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), who has just been released from a 28-day stint in jail, and her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor). Just seconds into the movie, while sharing a donut with her now free friend, Alexandra lets slip the fact that Sin-dee’s boyfriend and pimp Chester (James Ransome) has been cheating on her with a woman who is not only white, but has a vagina; or as Sin-dee refers to her, “a white fish”. It’s a revelation that not only puts the plot in motion, but kickstarts it by blasting electronic hip-hop as Sin-dee stomps through the streets of L.A. trying to find, and smack the shit out of, this woman.

As shot by Baker, L.A. looks like an over-saturated mess, bathed in colors as extreme as the garish music he chooses to score most of the scenes, and as hyperactive as his camera, which swoops and rushes around his characters as they make their way through their day-long odyssey. The low-fi aesthetic makes the movie feel ultra-realistic, sharing frame rates and camera angles with documentary filmmaking, but Baker’s high-strung directing also makes it seem otherworldly, like we’ve entered territory we had never visited before.

In a sense, that’s actually true. The number of movies with trans protagonists is frankly pathetic, especially when it comes to featuring characters who don’t spend most of the running time self-hating and bemoaning the fact that their bodies don’t match their desires. Sin-dee and Alexandra are refreshing because they are so self-assured and aware of their reality. They are, of course, affected by the stigma that still comes with identifying as trans in this world, but they don’t let the struggle be the only thing that defines them. Sin-dee, in particular, will scream and shout and not stop until she gets her revenge.

The buzz for Tangerine coming off its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival was quite ecstatic. People went in curious about the iPhone factor, and came out raving about one of the most energetic and refreshing independent comedies in years. The positive responses, paired with the underrepresented subject matter had me supremely excited about the movie, which makes it all the more disappointed that, despite admiring what it sets out to do, I can’t really recommend the movie without addressing some really big reservations.

My first problem comes from the fact that I just don’t think Tangerine is very funny. Baker seems to have gone off to try to capture something realistic and truthful with this film. The simplicity of working with a phone seems to have allowed for him to create a particularly close and intimate environment for the actors, who seem to be fairly inexperienced. I certainly know the two leads were. The leads, Taylor in particular, do notably well in the more poignant scenes, but they are not trained comedic improvisers, and thus, seem to struggle with the on-the-spot creation of funny dialogue.

Surely they’re not helped by Baker’s comedic set pieces, which are most of the time predictable and tired. A sequence with an Armenian taxi driver (Karren Karagulian) disappointingly cruising through the neighborhood, for example, goes on for minutes to reveal a payoff we knew was coming from the minute the sequence started. In fact, that scene is symptomatic of Tangerine‘s erratic rhythms. It’s surprising that as energetic and forward-moving a movie as this one can have so much dead weight.

Tangerine clocks in at only 83 minutes, and I still felt like it was longer that it should have been. There is a lot of business going on, but little really happens in the movie. Baker indulges in montages of his characters walking through the streets as if he was trying to make this story into a feature-length movie. It’s as if he didn’t know how to spend the time he has with his protagonists, instead focusing in a parade of uninteresting supporting characters, like the aforementioned taxi driver, whose story takes up almost half the movie and is practically inconsequential to our main narrative, except for the fact that Baker wants to use him to heighten the craziness of the third act confrontation.

The last scene in Tangerine reveals a much sweeter and thoughtful movie than the eighty minutes that preceded it. It’s a weird little vignette of intimacy and friendship that reveals the nuances and shared lives of the women that exist behind the character’s sass. It’s too sad that the rest of the movie doesn’t trust in exploring the characters, but instead settles for lots of dazzle and cheap comedy.

Grade: 6 out of 10

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