Short Takes: Tangerine

(Sean Baker, U.S., 2015)

There’s nothing inherently wrong with following the “write what you know” principle. Yet as the guiding aesthetic of the predominantly white, male world of American independent filmmaking, it’s stultifying. Sean Baker—a straight, white cisgender (a person whose gender identity matches their sex at birth) man from New Jersey—has collaborated with a variety of subjects, fashioning fictions from their lived experience. In Tangerine, the sources of firsthand insight are Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, two trans women of color who star as Sin-Dee and Alexandra, sex workers and besties.

It’s Christmas Eve and Sin-Dee is fresh out of lockup, looking to reunite with her fiancé and pimp Chester (James Ransone). Alexandra informs her that Chester has been sleeping with a “fish” (a cis woman), sending Sin-Dee on a furious quest around Los Angeles (without a car!) to find that bitch.

Rodriguez moves and speaks like a firecracker, and although her acting is sometimes shaky, she exudes genuine charisma. That magnetism also pulls Razmik, an Armenian cabbie (Baker regular Karren Karagulian) who has a crush on Sin-Dee, away from his family’s holiday dinner early. Unfortunately, Baker fails to sustain the energy promised by his players, and the multilingual shouting-match finale (which includes Razmik’s mother-in-law) is tiresomely protracted. And while the film’s colors are as electric as the characters’ emotions, the setups and framing are fairly conventional, a missed opportunity to create aesthetics that reflect the unique perspectives.