By Adam Nayman
Dir. Sean Baker, U.S., Magnolia Pictures
Sean Baker makes widescreen movies. Not only in the sense that he employs a rectangular aspect ratio, but also by seeking to include as many characters as possible within the physical area of a shot. His style evokes the philosophical space of a subculture that itself exists as part of a larger society. Baker’s wonderful 2011 drama, Starlet, about an adult-film actress (Dree Hemingway) who strikes up a friendship with the elderly woman she rips off at a garage sale, managed to be at once clear-eyed and nonjudgmental about the world of porn; it honed in on the disparate motives of a group of professionals without ever drifting into a critique. By gracefully placing Hemingway’s Jane and her adult-film costars and collaborators within an everyday San Fernando Valley landscape—a milieu more gloriously sunblind than sleazy—Baker and cinematographer Radium Cheung drained the sensationalism out of the material.
Baker and Cheung are back at it in Tangerine, a film that is at once more formally stylized and aggressively inclusive than Starlet. Shot entirely using iPhones tricked out with anamorphic adapters, it’s one of the most visually striking American films in recent memory, showcasing the agility of its production methods in a way that serves the story. Or rather, in a way that serves the characters, because there isn’t much story here: unfolding in something close to real-time on a bright orange Christmas Eve in Hollywood, the film begins and ends in media res,following transgender prostitute Sin-Dee (Kiki Kitana-Rodriguez) as she seeks out the “fish”—that is to say, cis female—she learns has been sleeping with her boyfriend-pimp Chester. Sin-Dee’s quest, which she begins and ends in the company of her best friend, and fellow male-to-female convert, Alex (Mya Taylor), takes so long because she has to walk everywhere, in heels, in a city designed for drivers, on a stretch of blocks baking in the late-December glare.
Newly sprung from jail and looking for trouble, Sin-Dee is the sort of person others might describe as a “force of nature,” which is often a euphemism for “impossible”: she’s a relentless motor-mouth and her preferred form of conversation is to berate the other party into agreement or silence—not that Alex is intimidated. The opening moments of Tangerine present an audience with the sort of characters rarely glimpsed in American feature films—and even more rarely as protagonists—but it also lucidly conveys crucial information about its subjects’ lives and lifestyles without much exposition. Quickly we intuit that Sin-Dee and Alex’s rapid-fire exchanges, laced with gossip and affectionate insults, are a form of performance similar to the more obvious role-playing they do with their clients—who, as the film goes on to show, exist both inside and beyond the generally outlying social circles they travel in.
The underlying tension between life and performance here is reminiscent of Starlet, except thicker. In the earlier film, Baker drew a clear distinction between his main character in her daily routine and the hardcore particulars of her job while suggesting that the two could not help but intersect. Tangerine invites us to see Sin-Dee and Alex as people whose attempts at self-actualization have consigned them to marginal status. There is a sort of ethnographic aspect to Baker’s filmmaking here; he and his cowriter, Chris Bergoch, sought out information from Los Angeles residents Rodriguez and Taylor about the neighborhood and its various social and sexual codes and the combination of naturalistic acting, dialogue, and sound design is deployed in the service of that old critical and creative bugaboo “authenticity”—a slippery signifier that can be anathema to the heightened requirements of drama. Fortunately, Sin-Dee and Alex, and the performers playing them, have a healthy and playful sense of self-presentation that in this case doesn’t work against “realism” but rather serves to inscribe it. Sin-Dee is such a strong and outrageous personality that she overwhelms everything in her path—her friends, her enemies, and maybe some of the audience—but Rodriguez also fully inhabits her weaknesses, from her emotional fragility to her well-concealed but acute insecurity about her biological differences and what they mean in comparison to her rivals.
The complications of transgender sex and sexuality are on full display in Tangerine, and they’re often comic. Karren Karagulian, who has appeared in all of Baker’s films (he was a sleazy producer in Starlet), plays another major character, Razmik, an Armenian cab driver who makes frequent stops on his rounds for blowjobs. When he discovers that a shapely hooker he’s picked up is not, in fact, a chick-with-a-dick, he’s outraged and turned off. His character gives Baker and Bergoch yet another opportunity to examine performance, from a slightly different angle; we see Razmik at home presiding over a thrown-together Christmas dinner as the man of a house filled with women—including his wife, daughter, and mother-in-law—who all have varying degrees of suspicion about what he really does with his late shifts. As a driver, Razmik possesses a mobility that Sin-Dee and Alex lack, but the cramped backseat camera angle implies that he’s a man trapped in a claustrophobic loop of desire—one that keeps him cruising the same blocks in search of a catharsis that’s always going to be temporary and transactional, and which threatens both the domestic stability and cultural tradition he seeks to maintain at home.
The intersecting paths of Sin-Dee, Alex, and Razmik are beautifully choreographed across the course of Tangerine, which scarcely halts its forward momentum even during its few moments of idyll; in a sequence that might be the sweet flipside to David Cronenberg’s Crash, Razmik and Alex have oral sex in an automated car wash, shielded from prying eyes by pounding waves of soapy water. It’s funny and erotic, but it also suggests a kind of fleeting, heedless desire that’s integrated into the rhythms of heavy machinery (they’re doing the dirty inside the car while the outside is getting buffed to a nice, pleasing shine). The only time the film really stops moving is during Alex’s nightclub performance of the signature song from Walt Disney’s 1961 live-action musical Babes in Toyland—a potentially mawkish, extreme close-up set-piece (in the mold of Carey Mulligan in Shame) leavened by Sin-Dee’s half-rapt, half-impatient viewing from a corner booth.
That Sin-Dee interrupts her heat-seeking trajectory to make it to Alex’s hilariously under-attended Yuletide showcase—dragging the aforementioned “fish” Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan) into the bar by the scruff of her neck and making her sit and watch in silence—speaks to Baker’s major theme, which is nothing more or less than the importance of friendship, the same simple, maddeningly complex concept that got a workout in Starlet. There, the tension was in whether two women at different ends of their lives—and in very different personal, social, and economic circumstances—could find common ground and honor each other even after the revelation of a devastating betrayal. With this in mind, and considering how sparsely Tangerine is plotted, it’s perhaps a little predictable that Sin-Dee’s delayed reckoning with Chester—a structuring absence eventually embodied with hollow aplomb by the resourceful, perpetually underrated James Ransone—twists around into a conflict between her and Alex, one witnessed in full view of all the other characters, who become unexpectedly congregated in a curbside donut shop in the manner of an old-fashioned screwball comedy. And because the film is so propulsive, even this impasse doesn’t really last—the downside to making a film as fast as Tangerine is that its big moments risk feeling rushed.
However, sometimes there’s something to be said for good vibes and skillful presentation trumping dramaturgy, and even if the pacing feels off, Baker’s staging of Sin-Dee and Alex’s blow-up and reconciliation is superb, using the widescreen to first emphasize the distance that’s opened up between them and then tracking rapidly to show the speed with which it gets collapsed again. And the film has a perfect final shot, one juxtaposing processes of stripping down and dressing up so seamlessly that they seem to be the same thing. As a formal exercise in low-budget, technologically downsized filmmaking, Tangerine is nothing short of remarkable; as a portrait of people doing their best to be their best selves, it’s as warm and vivid as the sunsets splashed across its narrow but expansive digital canvas.