Released on July 10th 2015, Tangerine focuses on the day-to-day lives of two working girls as they storm through the streets of Tinseltown. The feature received a healthy share of praise upon its initial debut and stood out among many of the other films released that same year, largely due to two specific reasons.
The first being the execution of the story itself, or lack of, as there’s not really a particular plot driving the movie forward in a traditional sense of the word. Sure, there’s a catalyst of sorts early on in the movie, yet it’s one which doesn’t really seem to go anywhere or pay off until the end.
The film begins with our main “protagonists” – Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) – chatting away with one another, and continues to (largely) stick with them as they march across Tinsel town for most of its entire 88 minutes of runtime. There’s no call to action, no task to accomplish and no resolution to resolve. All we get is a pissed off girl in search of her cheating lover and her friend following in tow.
Instead of adopting a traditional three act structure, the script mainly just likes to follow two individuals who are practically existing on the fringes of American society without delving any further into their worlds; snooping in on their personal dramas and daily lives.
Sin-Dee and Alexandra are two transgender sex workers living in Tinseltown LA. The date is the 24th December and Sin-Dee has just been released from prison. As she’s catching up with fellow friend and co-worker, Alexandra, she discovers – after some hasty back and forths between the two – that her boyfriend Chester has cheated on her with a cisgender woman. Anger sparks and Sin-Dee storms from the restaurant in search of both Chester and the woman in question. Which is about as far as the story gets to having a cause-and-effect catalyst. Beyond this point, it’s essentially an additional 80 minutes of Sin-Dee and Alexandra marching through Tinseltown; interacting with fellow acquaintances and causing chaos in their wake.
The characters of Sin-Dee and Alexandra aren’t exactly what one may call awful individuals, however they certainly aren’t the most likable pair to occupy the big screen either. At times they come across as violent, rude, aggressive and outright irrational to those they cross paths with. It’s also implied by others who encounter them that they aren’t exactly liked all that much within their wider community. This rule applies to pretty much all the other characters we see throughout this film; including taxi driver/frequent client Razmik or boyfriend/pimp Chester. None are presented as callous souls, yet neither are any seen as loving, sympathetic lifeforms who we’d like to spend an evening with. Instead, viewers are left in a moral grey area; not sure what on earth these people are really like under the skin.
Rarely do any of these characters learn any vital lessons or grow as individuals. The only time we do witness a shred of empathy and change of heart from a character would be during the final moments, when Alexandra helps a distraught Sin-Dee after she’s assaulted by a group of transphobic men.
Yet it’s clear that these characters aren’t necessarily supposed to be loved or hated. Just as there’s next to no three act structure to Tangerine, there’s also no heroes or villains in the traditional manner driving the film along.
The near-absent plot and diluted character development is all intentional, as Tangerine is manifesting itself as a fly-one-the-wall feature. Instead of luring viewers into living, breathing and feeling the world they are creating, the filmmakers are inviting audiences to peep and peer at the daily activities of these two colourful individuals. Most of those watching are highly unlikely to have ever come across such people like Sin-Dee or Alexandra, so to see these souls traipsing around Tinseltown and going about their business will be a unique and fresh experience for many watching.
Everything about the experience of viewing Tangerine likens to that of a documentary; presenting the tale of two people living on the cusp of American society to a group of voyeuristic spectators. The lens acts as the glass to a world that these people will more than likely never be apart of. A sensationalist piece of cinema exploiting the protagonists to a curious audience.
Presenting the feature as a fly-on-the-wall piece allows the filmmakers to pretty much avoid tangling themselves up in any thorny political or controversial vines which most films tackling such subjects would often find themselves wrapped in. Sex work and transgender rights are heated topics in the modern world; exceptionally sensitive subjects that are both controversial and easily misunderstood by a majority of mainstream society. Despite an exceptionally distressing scene depicting a transphobic attack during the final few minutes of the feature, Tangerine manages to avoid taking on the prejudices, social struggles and complexities which face trans sex workers in contemporary American life. The detached, voyeuristic depiction steers clear of taking sides or forming any sort of message on these topics. Instead, we get 88 minutes of two brash and distinct personalities tackling their personal quarrels from start to finish.
The second reason as to why this one stands out among other 2015 releases is the way in which the movie was made. The entire feature was shot on nothing more than three iPhone 5s’s, which is an aspect that makes Tangerine an utter triumph in modern filmmaking. Upon watching it, you’d never know unless told that this was the case.
All 88 minutes of it appear as though it was professionally shot with the typical studio equipment you’d usually expect from a cinematic release. The cinematography is vivid & vibrant, the camera angles professionally positioned, the editing seamlessly cut and the sound crystal clear.
Such filmmaking goes to show how the progression of technology has impacted and changed the cinematic landscape; proving that pretty much any old homosapien pottering about the earth today who has both the determination and a rectangular computer stashed away in their pockets/handbags possesses the ability to make films without gathering up a small fortune to do so.
Furthermore, Tangerine is part of a collection of works which are ushering in a new area of filmmaking; one in which the power to produce pieces of cinema are moving away from the hands of giant Hollywood producers and into the hands of the people.
Such freedom for anyone to make a film with nothing more than a cameraphone and a reasonable amount of motivation implies that we are moving into an era of moviemaking where richer forms of freedom, independence, diversity and identity are commonplace.
While the fat cats of the studio system continue to turn up the volume on their special effects dial, features like Tangerine are opting instead to zoom in, shed light and explore unique corners of society which have been unheard of by so many far too long.
Tangerine may not be the finest film contributed to the archives of cinema, however it is an utter triumph in independent filmmaking; deserving a place within the medium’s history books for its utilisation of abundant technology and documentation of a largely invisible corner of society.