Almost all of the Rotten Tomato and Metacritic cool kidz are in love with Sean Baker‘s Tangerine (Magnolia, opening today in NYC), and you can’t blame them. I liked it myself. Okay, I mostly liked it. And it does have a raw, on-the-fly attitude that you can’t help but admire. Spirited and alive, Tangerine is a lower-depths screwball dramedy and an instant addition to any films-about-Los-Angeles pantheon.
Can we talk? Everybody loves Tangerine because it was shot fast and cheap on an iPhone 5 and because it feeds into the current vogue for all things transgender, which the cool kidz are terrified of because they don’t want to be seen as insensitive or indifferent to the latest cultural whiff-spray. I’m terrified myself, but I also genuinely liked Tangerine‘s freshness and no-bullshit vitality, and because it balances an aura of skanky, no-hope nihilism with currents of tenderness and compassion.
The only thing I don’t like about Tangerine is having to like it because the thought of saying you don’t like it is too terrible to contemplate. Nobody wants to be on the outs with the cool kidz, nobody wants to fall under suspicion, and nobody would dare look askance at a film that was shot for dimes and quarters on an iPhone…are you kidding me?
Tangerine is about love, lust, friendship, deception and jealousy centered around a couple of Hollywood transgender ho’s — Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) — who earn what they can by…well, mostly by giving blowjobs to Johns in a kind of Rainer Werner Fassbender realm along Santa Monica Blvd. between Highland and Vermont.
Things kick off on Christmas Eve when Alexandra unintentionally tells Sin-Dee, who’s just gotten out of jail, about Chester, Sin-Dee’s drug-dealing pimp/boyfriend (James Ransome), having been unfaithful to her, and — worse!– not with another tranny but a biologically genuine, raggedy-looking white chick (Mickey O’Hagan) named Dinah. So Sin-Dee sets out looking for Dinah and Chester, determined to force the truth out of both and see what’s what.
Early on we also meet Razmik (Karren Karagulian), a married, unshaven, grossly unattractive cab driver who apparently spends a serious portion of his hard-earned dough on tranny sex (i.e., giving and receiving head) in his cab. He and his wife, Yeva (Luiza Nersisyan), have a kid, and there’s also Yeva’s mom Ashken (Alla Tumanian) to contend with. Grubby-looking Razmik sits around his home and goes through the motions, but what seems to matter the most to him is tranny cock in the cab…that or getting blown.
In the meantime Alexandra is telling everyone she runs into to catch a lip-synch show she’ll soon perform — a plot point that’s totally forgotten about by the finale. She also runs into an eager-beaver Razmik at midpoint and…okay, I won’t spoil. There’s also a scene in which Razmik is about to get something going with a truly beautiful African American girl, and then he freaks and demands his money back when he realizes she’s not a tranny. We also encounter Clu Gulager, of all people, as a tourist taking a ride in Razmik’s cab in the opening moments.
The climax finally happens at the same donut shop (Donut Time) where everything began 80-something minutes earlier, but it ends rather sweetly in a laundromat with a tender moment between Sin-Dee and Alexandra — a rapproachment that makes all the lower-depths, Last Exit to Brooklyn-type shenanigans seem worth it.
Honest question #1: What is the difference between cheering this film because it was shot on an iPhone and applauding a ’50s Biblical spectacle because it cost an astronomical sum to make? Reviewing the budget is reviewing the budget. The only honest way to assess Tangerine is to ask what you would have said if it had been shot on state-of-the-art digital cameras and had cost, let’s say, $1.5 or $2 million with name-brand actors pretending to be the real thing. Be honest.
Honest question #2: Most films try to engage audiences by selling them on an idea that there are bonds or similarities between themselves and the characters (i.e., “this could be your story if not for God’s grace or a twist of fate,” etc.) They also try to get audiences to invest in this or that character because they have a shot at a decent future or at least a semblance of happiness. Sin-Dee and Alexandara are sweethearts but really, where can they go but down? Once they get a little bit older and younger prostitutes move in, they’re finished. What’s going to happen to scumbag Chester and raggedy-ass Dinah and grimy Razmik? Are they someday going to became world-class party promoters or Uber drivers or chefs or actors or….you know, something cool and well-paying? Not likely. They’re almost certainly doomed. The only character with any gusto or vinegar is Ashken, the mother-in-law. The rest are all losers.
I’m not saying anyone is obliged to consider the film in this light, but it seems odd that none of the adoring critics have even glanced at this aspect. All they want to talk about is Tangerine‘s style, spirit and authenticity. N.Y. Times critic Manohla Dargis won’t admit it, but I know what she’d be thinking and feeling if she herself was stuck inside of Mobile with the Donut Time blues again.