Tangerine Review


Sunday 13th November at the Reid Building, Glasgow School of art, at 7.30pm.

Shot entirely on iPhone 5s devices, Sean S. Baker and Chris Bergoch’s Tangerine presents a Los Angeles that pops and shimmers on the screen, all sprinkled donuts and neon retail signs. The action takes place in the present-day: it’s Christmas Eve, and yet the backdrop feels humid and close; there’s a sense that if you stepped through the screen and pressed a piece of bubblegum to the concrete pavement, you’d hear its sticky sizzle. The opening sequence introduces Sin-Dee-Rella (Kitana Rodriguez) and her friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor), two transgender sex-workers with conflicting opinions on how the rest of their day should be spent. Sin-Dee, ‘back on the block’ after a month-long jail stint, is in hot pursuit of the cisgender woman her pimp/boyfriend has been sleeping with during her absence. Alexandra attempts to reconcile two disparate efforts: quelling her friend’s violent resolve, and flyering for her own singing performance at a club later on.

Rodriguez and Taylor take their lead roles with a racy, searing energy entirely befitting the clammy vibrancy of their terrain. The opening sequence is a tour-de-force of quick-fire oaths and increasingly inventive insults (‘his breath always smells like he been eating ass for days’), interwoven with glimpses of the exquisite fragility that haunts their characters, and which is further unpacked as the film goes on. At some point, Sin-Dee’s mission finds her strutting precariously down Hollywood Boulevard: cue flashbacks to the girls of Pretty Woman jostling amiably for their space on the block, while a smooth 80s score worked tirelessly to keep the sensibilities of the film’s audience firmly unruffled. Tangerine has no such cotton wool padding, and neither it should. In one scene, a cisgender woman attempts to turn tricks on streets that are traditionally populated by transgender workers, only to be shoved and reprimanded by a shaken customer (‘What the fuck is that? That corner’s not for pussies’). In another, Alexandra’s client fails to become erect during a transaction, and withholds payment in a chilling display of careless misogyny. Her indignation is fierce, yet there is a childlike triviality to her objections which doesn’t marry with the brutality of the episode. Her defensive mask is hardy, and many years in the making. It appears to radiate inwards, too; preventing her own mind from fully digesting the true damage and sorrow of repeated abuse. Despite the heady pace, the film knows to slow down when it has to, and never to greater effect than during Alexandra’s singing performance, through which her alienation is painfully, beautifully laid bare.

The final sequence plays out like a classic Shakespearean denouement; Much Ado About Nothing, perhaps, with its chaotic blend of mistaken identity, gender roles and deception. As Tangerine’s various faces and voices are brought together under one roof (that of Donut Time on Santa Monica Boulevard, to be specific), we are treated to that classic, time-honoured blend of tragedy and farce, yet without the cohesive resolutions of Shakespeare’s play. In Tangerine, nobody is innocent, yet as the characters go their separate waves, the audience is allowed to ponder for themselves which ones they believe will shine on, and which will fade into the night, like the various fates of the Christmas Eve stars above the City of Angels, where Baker and Bergoch laid their scene.

by Rosa Barbour