Tangerine is one of 2015’s indie darlings, a brisk tale of a young woman recently released from prison only to find out her boyfriend/pimp has been cheating on her. The casting of a transgender woman of color, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, as the protagonist and the use of an iPhone as the camera made the most waves. While those statements are conveniently bit-sized , they’re not just floating facts to sell an otherwise stale movie; they reflect the non-traditional stylings that writer/director Sean Baker has baked into his film, albeit with some under-cooked layers.
Many reviewers have focused on the film’s style, but not so much on the use of an iPhone. Instead, they focus on the kinetic camerawork and effective use of color that keep the low-budget stylings fresh. Clearly Baker is familiar with directing, because his cinematography forms an aesthetic that’s better-looking and more complete than a lot of big budget fare. Tangerine is a great reminder that indie budgets don’t mean you can’t impress even the most pretentious film site. Further, Baker packs the frame with details and small jokes, like a bus poster that reflects Sindee’s irrepressible drive: “They will never let go”.
The cinematic fundamentals hold up a fast-paced and engrossing story, an intimate character study of someone who doesn’t often get to take center stage. Is it perfectly done? Well, that’s the hardest part of talking about a movie like this, because I don’t have the perspective to comment on how realistic it is in terms of a transgender, working class woman of color’s experiences. Film-Forward critic Nora Lee Mandel calls Tangerine a “minstrel show,” critiquing the use of tropes like the Angry Black Woman. Even if Rodriguez helped with the script, it’s hard not to ask these questions when such characters are stereotyped by our culture at large. Because Tangerine (despite the stylistics) is a classic farcical comedy, which relies on inflated character traits, it’s possible that a white cisgender male would base the traits of a black transgender woman on stereotypes rather than unique characteristics.
All of these discussions are important to have, but if nothing else, Baker makes characters that—to me—are engaging and dynamic. Each one has an arc. Baker is skillful enough to know when those arcs should intersect, and how those intersections change each person involved. If the characters do lean too heavily on stereotypes, then the actors deserve even more credit than what has been rightfully heaped upon them, because from my view each one feels like a human being. Just one example is a memory that Sindee’s friend, Alexandra (Mya Taylor), shares: when she was a child, her favorite doll lost the ability to say “I love you” when she brought it in the bath, reflecting the latent fears of intimacy exhibited throughout the film. Such moments say a lot about a character in few words, setting the writing apart from a lot of other indie darlings.
The parallel story with an Armenian father and cab driver, Razmik (Karren Karagulian), adds another angle through which to think about Sindee’s story. Rather than kinetic and comedic, Razmik’s story is slow and somber. Unlike Sindee, whose public and private life are blended, Razmik hides his private life as a john of transgender prositutes from his public life as a family man. The public life reflects stereotypes of the quiet, hardworking blue-collar Middle Eastern parent, living with in-laws who prefer to speak their native language. But the way his story contrasts Sindee’s adds depth to both, and thus allows for a climax where stories converge and go from lively to frantic. Still, questions arise about whether Razmik fetishizes transgender women that have not had genital reconstructive surgery, and make us once again look at the context of the film to see if it merely reflects or is a victim of a culture that misunderstands transgender identities.
Tangerine‘s two biggest talking points sell the movie based on how it subverts the mainstream. Ultimately, Baker and Rodriguez use these new techniques to retell an old story, and that’s what has helped it reach mainstream success. With mainstream success, though, comes the kind of questions that Mandel posits. Namely, if Tangerine follows the structure of traditional stories, is it unable to capture the non-traditional lives of characters like Sindee? Or can it connect all kinds of film-going audiences to her story? Is that valuable, or merely a way to make her story palatable to mainstream audiences? All of these are important questions, but they only arise because Tangerine is an interesting, well-constructed, and thoughtful film. Even if further analysis leads to damning conclusions, I expect that Tangerine will remain in conversations for years to come, which is a feat that has eluded indie darlings of years past.