Tangerine – Film Review by David Turpin
Directed by Sean Baker
Starring Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karren Karagulian, Mickey O’Hagan, James Ransome.
Sean Baker follows up his tart but tender-hearted off-Hollywood vignette Starlet (2012) with something even zestier in Tangerine – a ‘transgender revenge comedy’ shot in down-at-heel LA using only iPhones fitted with anamorphic lenses. The film’s shooting gimmick is an attention-grabber on paper, but on screen it’s quickly forgotten, thanks to the hilarious, riveting performances of the leads, first-time actresses Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor.
The lightning-paced plot follows Sin-Dee (Rodriguez), recently released from prison and ‘going hard’ on a mission of revenge after her best friend Alexandra (Taylor) inadvertently reveals the cheating ways of Sin-Dee’s boyfriend/pimp, Chester (another sly turn from Baker veteran James Ransome). While Alexandra focuses on the hustle of making a living and preparing for her debut nightclub performance, Sin-Dee kidnaps Chester’s other woman, Dinah (the terrific Mickey O’Hagan), and marches her through the city for a showdown with Chester at his business headquarters in a donut shop. As if all this wasn’t festive enough, the events transpire on Christmas Eve – albeit a sun-throbbed and neon-lit L.A. Christmas that is notably lacking in good will to all.
Unfolding in tandem to Sin-Dee and Alexandra’s misadventures is the daily grind of Armenian taxi driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian), whose fares (including B-movie veteran Clu Gulager) form a microcosm of L.A. society. This strand of the film bears a certain similarity to Jafar Panahi’s current documentary Taxi Tehran, in which a cab is also used to capture a cross-section of urban life. However, Baker has more than sociology on his mind, and Razmik’s life eventually intersects with those of Si-Dee, Alexandra, Dinah and Chester in a climactic act of pure, delirious farce.
The thrill of Tangerine is, in fact, the way it combines farcical momentum with an utterly persuasive portrait of L.A. life on the edge of destitution – including a visit to what must surely be the most convincing crack den ever captured on film. The film’s tone is a delicate balance, and it relies almost entirely on the complementary energies of Rodriguez and Taylor, who hold the centre of a narrative that starts at 100 m.p.h. and only escalates from there. Rodriguez’s performance – alternately little-girl charming and dangerously volatile – is a human fireworks display, interspersed with moments of eerie calm. A bathroom exchange between Sin-Dee and Dinah, and a genuinely moving conclusion in a laundromat, are like oases in a furnace. Electrifying as Rodriguez is, the film’s most memorable performance is Taylor’s. More than a mere foil to Sin-Dee, Alexandra is tough, watchful and tender – her song number will touch the hardest hearts, and she also gets the film’s single best one-liner, in a priceless exchange with a parsimonious John (Scott Krinsky).
In the way it uses peripatetic characters to map the life of a city, as well as its hyper-alertness to dialect, there is something oddly and unexpectedly Joycean about Baker’s film – perhaps this is what Ulysses would have looked like with transgendered hookers in place of Bloom and Dedalus. At the same time, with its relentless forward momentum, all-but-lawless milieu, and ferocious but sympathetic heroines, Tangerine would make an arresting – if exhausting – double bill with 2015’s other most exciting film, Mad Max: Fury Road.
Tangerine also has a chance at making the record books, as its U.S. distributors, Magnolia Pictures, have recently launched a campaign to secure Rodriguez and Taylor Oscar nominations, for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively – making them the first transgender actresses to secure such accolades. If the gamble pays off, the wider recognition will be richly deserved, if slightly contrary to the thrillingly countercultural feel of the film itself. If it doesn’t, there’s no loss – Sin-Dee and Alexandra are legendary even without statuettes.
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