Tangerine, campy comedic thriller, rated R, Violet Crown, 3 chiles
Probably more than any other group, transgendered prostitutes of color must have a solid grasp on differing levels of societal power and privilege, as well as multilayered artifice. Sex workers are skilled actresses, faking pleasure and enthusiasm for cash. And if the customer is white and the sex worker is not, another level of deference often has to be performed for one’s own safety. (Transgendered prostitutes of color are more likely to be victims of violence than other sex workers.) But artifice isn’t all bad: At its campiest, it can be highly entertaining, and it’s a protective barrier between individual and world. Many women enact artifice daily when they apply makeup, a socially encouraged mask that makes it easier to look — and therefore act — invincible, regardless of how you feel inside.
Tangerine, co-written by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch and directed by Baker, stars newcomers Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor as Sin-Dee and Alexandra, respectively, best friends and prostitutes in Hollywood. It’s Christmas Eve, and Sin-Dee, who has just been released from a month in jail, finds out that Chester (James Ransone), her boyfriend/pimp, has been cheating on her with a white “fish” — a biological woman. She furiously sets out to find her, armed only with the information that her name begins with D. Alexandra doesn’t want to get involved in the angry drama, since she is preparing to sing that night at a bar. (When another character refers to the performance as a drag show, she is unequivocally corrected: Alexandra is not a drag queen.)
The Los Angeles of Tangerine is gritty and dark. The living spaces are cramped — apartments inhabited by immigrant families and cheap motel rooms for turning tricks and smoking meth or crack. The characters drive cabs and ride buses; they conduct business out of a doughnut shop. No one in the film is purely bad or good, or even trying to be one way or the other. They are making choices that show how fluid our identities really are and how we all need protecting. The small pieces of story build, often relying on the visceral discomfort of both character and viewer. Shot entirely on iPhones, Tangerine feels at once raw and sophisticated, descriptions that also apply to the acting skills of the protagonists. The performances are amateur yet earnest, and as the plot picks up emotional heft, what has seemed like slightly forced line delivery and over-awareness of the camera become yet one more layer in the artifice, revealed just as it begins to dissolve. — Jennifer Levin
From left, Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in Los Angeles