Great films have virtually no fat on them, with each scene and sequence leading into the next, progressing the plot, enriching the world of the film, or highlighting deep themes prevalent in the film. 2015’s “Tangerine” is one such great film.
I first heard of “Tangerine” via RedLetterMedia’s popular “Half in the Bag” web series, in which they compared it to 2017’s “The Florida Project”, and indeed, they are very much alike. Both films explore worlds we rarely like to think of, with “Tangerine” showing the world of transgender sex workers in Hollwood, while “The Florida Project” tells the story of those living in poverty in a motel that’s in the shadow of Disneyland.
“Tangerine” follows Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and her best friend, Alexandra (Mya Taylor), who are both transgender sex workers. The film’s plot is pretty simple, as Sin-Dee has just gotten out of prison, and is looking to track down her boyfriend and pimp, Chester (James Ransone), who cheated on her. Along the way, she finds and kidnaps the girl he cheated with — a sex worker named Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan) — but the three end up developing an unlikely friendship.
Alongside this is the film’s B plot, which follows an Armenian taxi driver named Razmik (Karren Karagulian), who cheats on his wife often with the transgender sex workers, and has a thing for Sin-Dee and Alexandra. His mother-in-law (Alla Tumanian) gets suspicious when he bails on his family to supposedly go to work, and it results in the two sides of his life colliding in a fantastic way at a Donut Shop in the middle of the night.
“Tangerine” very much emulates guerilla filmmaking, making good use of handheld cam shots and realistic exposure levels that make you feel like you’re there with the sex workers, seeing things from their point of view. Any shot that utilizes sunshine is particularly gorgeous, and provides a great contrast between the beauty of Hollywood and its surrounding area, and the seediness of Sin-Dee and Alexandra’s world.
Sin-Dee, Alexandra, Razmik and Dinah are all full fleshed out characters with depth. Sin-Dee is often jealous, brash, and often acts on her emotions, though she is loyal to those close to her. Alexandra is Sin-Dee’s voice of reason, who aspires for a life beyond what she has now. There’s a great subplot where Alexandra sings at a bar on Christmas Eve, but only Sin-Dee and the captive Dinah show up. The bond the two have really make the film.
Dinah is one of the least likeable characters in the film, but we feel bad for her because she has no agency over her life. Everything that happens to her is a result of choices made by other people, and despite the fact that Alexandra, Sin-Dee and Chester eventually reconcile, Dinah is left out in the cold.
Razmik also gets no closure. The film leaves him with his secret revealed, forced to live with it with no support from his family. Razmik is someone who has played the part of the happy family man/head of the household, but he simply isn’t happy being in a heterosexual relationship, which is a big problem, seeing as his mother-in-law is very traditional.
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His mother-in-law is perhaps the least sympathetic character in the entire film, as Razmik’s wife knows and has accepted his cheating, and is grateful for the life he’s provided them in America. Razmik’s mother-in-law wants him to not only be the sole provider for the family, but she wants it on her terms. Given what we can glean from Razmik’s life, it’s people like his mother-in-law who forced him to hide who he truly is and is the source of his unhappiness. Despite the fact that he now lives in America, where you can marry whomever you want, regardless of their sex, Razmik is confined to the traditional gender norms of Armenia through his mother-in-law. She’s portrayed as dogmatic and despicable.
“Tangerine” is one of those films that tell the story of people who’d normally never have a camera on them, and as a result, it feels very real and visceral. A24 did not make this, but it would feel right at home with their filmography.
“Tangerine” gets a 9/10