One-line review: A transfixing tale of two trans women’s hustle. 

Tangerine will forever be known as the film shot on an iPhone, but no publicity is bad publicity if the hype leads to more people watching this gem of a film. Director Sean Baker often pairs rookie actors with seasoned actors, but the latter (like Willem Dafoe in the Florida Project) usually anchor the film. However, in Tangerine, Baker casts two rookie trans actresses to carry the weight of the film, and boy, do they deliver. Baker wanted to make a film about LA’s underbelly, and hence the choice of the lives of trans women and trans sex workers. Initially, all he had by way of a script was an idea about the climax. But a chance encounter with one of the leads, Mya Taylor, opened the doors to others in the trans community and their lives, and the rest is history.  

The film takes place over a day (Christmas Eve), where we follow the lives of three people: two trans women sex workers, and an Armenian cab driver with a weakness for trans women. The first trans woman sex worker, Sin-Di-Rella (Kiki Rodriguez), who just got out of prison, meets up with her best friend, fellow trans sex worker, Alexandra (Mya Taylor). Alexandra inadvertently blurts out that Sin-Di’s boyfriend and pimp Chester may be cheating on her, and even worse, with a fish (a cisgender woman). A furious Sin-Dee takes off to find the fish Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan) and confront Chester. The second trans woman sex worker, Alexandra, is having a rough day and we see her hustle up close. This includes getting into a fistfight with a client who refuses to pay her or trying to convince the guard to let her sing at a club since none of her friends show up despite promising to come. The Armenian cab driver, Razmik (Karren Katagulian), is a responsible family man but has a big crush on Sin-Dee. He is determined to see her that night when he learns she is back from prison and leaves his family dinner mid-way in the pretext of having to work. However, Razmik’s mother-in-law suspects he’s up to no good and follows him, ably aided by another Armenian cabbie.   

The film’s climax brings all the characters to LA’s famous, but now closed donut shop, Donut Time, and mayhem ensues. Sin-Dee finally locates Chester there, played by a pitch-perfect James Ransone, who harnesses a Christian Bale in the Fighter kind of manic energy. Many secret lives hilariously unravel in the climax. But all the characters show us that despite their flaws they possess ample redeeming qualities. The film forces us to think whether morality is absolute or relative. Do the bonds of friendship and marriage trump minor transgressions like cheating? 

The film would collapse without the extraordinary performances of the leads, who are a perfect foil to each other. Alexandra (Mya Taylor) is Zen-like, a classic beauty, gullible, hurting inside, with an inherent sense of dignity (although she’s broke, she leaves tips, and buys Xmas gifts for others). Sin-Dee (Kee Rodriguez) is glamorous, and flamboyant, with a child-like face that mirrors her constantly changing emotions. The supporting cast is also excellent. Megan O Hara, who plays the fish Dinah, expertly shows her false bravado is just a shield to preserve her dignity because everyone treats her like trash. Ironically, the only genuine moment of affection Dinah receives is from her nemesis, Sin-Dee. They know they are both pawns in the game and on the same side: the receiving end. Karren Katagulian is superb as the macho cabbie with a soft corner for trans women sex workers and manages to be likable although he’s cheating on his wife.

What makes the film special apart from its novelty and the knockout performances is its lingering bittersweetness. Although we laugh at the lead characters’ biting humor and their comical situations, we are acutely aware that the humor surfaces from their inherently sad and dangerous lives as society’s outliers. Mya Taylor, in an interview, mentions that humor is a necessary coping mechanism for the trans community. Sean Baker’s sensitivity is evident in the small yet powerful details. For example, the brief but meaningful interactions between the cab driver Razmik and his passengers, or the genuine friendship between him and his regular client Alexandra are proof that humanity thrives even in society’s cracks.    

Like the lives of its cast, Tangerine retains its buoyancy throughout, thanks to some deft editing by Sean Baker himself. Much is made about the film’s title and its interpretation. I would like to think it stands for the hue of sunset, which represents the end of a hard day for most, but the beginning of a hard night for sex workers.  

Why watch it? To be uplifted by the director’s determination to portray the lives of society’s marginalized with sensitivity and grace.  

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *