While many movies were hoping to get a blaze of publicity by debuting at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the one that got the biggest boost was Tangerine. Few had heard of the movie before the fest, but it got huge amounts of buzz and won the Jury Prize, something it certainly deserved.
Sin-dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is just out of jail and meets up with her friend, Alexandra (Mya Taylor) to celebrate. Alexandra lets Sin-dee know some bad news – her boyfriend and pimp, Chester, has been sleeping with someone else while she was inside. The now furious Sin-dee sets off to find this woman, something that proves more difficult that you’d think.
Alexandra meanwhile is preparing for a performance she’s arranged at a club, but before that she needs some cash, which involves turning some tricks.
The film also follows an Armenian taxi driver with a penchant for giving BJs to transsexual prostitutes, but who then goes home to his wife and kid. However, his crush in Sin-dee may cause more than a few problems both for himself and others, especially when his mother-in-law sets out to discover where she run off to.
On the surface a movie about transsexual hookers should have us rolling our eyes about stereotyping and negative depictions of LGBT characters in the media. However, Sin-dee and Alexandra are great. They are far from being saints, but they are two of the most interesting, full-bodied, complex trans characters ever put on screen.
Although they are prostitutes and their lives are undoubtedly a bit of a mess, the film has huge amounts of empathy for the characters, testing their friendship and suggesting that no matter how messed up the world around them is, or what bad decisions they make, the fact they have each other is a vital link. Together they make their somewhat precarious and difficult lives work and help ensure they have something to smile about.
Tangerine has plenty of humour (including a great scene that wonderfully turns the tables on the hoary old idea of man being surprised to find his hooker has a dick) and yet still manages to feel real. While the fact it was shot on iPhone 5s’ with anamorphic adapters could have been a gimmick, here it’s used to great effect, allow the movie to have a surprisingly cinematic look, while also feeling free and grounded. Indeed, it’s almost the definition of street-level filmmaking.
It certainly helps that the largely unknown cast are great. Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor are brilliant in the central roles, ensuring the whole thing feels spontaneous and yet not messy or overly loose.
The film could easily have tried to pity its characters in the way many well-meaning but rather patronising social dramas do. Instead, Tangerine isn’t interested in decrying society or weeping about the women at the centre of the film. What it wants to show is that no matter their lot in life, Sin-dee and Alexandra are vibrant, witty people with dreams and desires, who may make plenty of bad decisions, but underneath that they are still good people who it’s worth spending an hour and a half with.
Overall Verdict: Vibrant, surprisingly funny and entertaining, Tangerine certainly deserves the praise it’s received. It’s not what you’d expect from a film about transgender prostitutes – it’s far better than that.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac