As 2015 wrapped up, along came the lists of “Best Movies” and “Must-see TV.” There is so much at our disposal as viewers today, and it can be easy to miss the artistic gems in the media and entertainment bombardment. Recently, I cruised Netflix to try and catch up and stumbled upon an independent film I had heard some recent buzz about on public radio.
Directed by Sean Baker and starring newcomers Kitana Kiki Rodriguez (Sin-Dee) and Mya Taylor (Alexandra), the film is Tangerine (2015). It follows a young transgender prostitute in Hollywood who has recently come back to the block after a stint in jail. The setting is Christmas Eve: Sin-Dee and her best friend Alex are on a quest to hunt down a woman her boyfriend/pimp slept with while she was in prison and force him to confess the wrongdoing.
With a premiere at Sundance Film Festival in 2015 and a distribution deal with Magnolia Pictures, Tangerine has found some fame, and brought its unlikely subjects with it. Internationally reviewed as one of the best films of 2015, many were disappointed when it recently was snubbed at both the Oscars and Golden Globes.
Tangerine is a low-budget film, but the low-budget look is also part of the film’s experimental appeal: it was entirely shot on an iPhone 5s. Special lenses and editing software were used (FiLMiC Pro video app), but the clarity, beauty, and consistency of the frames would not immediately suggest, even to a trained eye, that what we are seeing is the product of a smartphone. Many indie filmmakers have used iPhones to create films, but Tangerine is being touted as the first iPhone-only film to receive this sort of critical success.
The characters in this film present an original take on trans life through a portrayal of normalcy and self-accepted female contextualization of their subjects. Sin-Dee and Alex are compelling and beautiful and raunchy; they love each other, and they give and take the way any two best girlfriends might. The story is filled with hilarious plot turns that make the viewer wonder what was scripted and what was ad-libbed. They cruise up and down the Hollywood streets, meeting up with other trans women, perhaps also prostitutes, all adding to what must have been an enormous, seemingly bystander, cast.
Eventually, Sin-Dee finds the culprit, a thin blonde woman named Dinah (played by Mickey O’Hagan), and is about to rush to accuse her beloved of his crime, when she realizes she has almost missed Alexandra’s performance at a bar downtown. She pulls Dinah to the bar, and forces her to sit at a table with her so they can support Alex on stage. No one else has come to the event. Afterwards, she’s notably disappointed, and Sin-Dee tries to cheer her up:
“You did good, girl,” says Sin-Dee.
“Tell her she did good,” Sin-Dee says to Dinah.
“Honestly, it sounded a little old…what I’m coming from is that I know a lot of people in the music industry… I myself sing…The cool thing is you played in a club, you had people paying you…,” Dinah chimes.
“Shhh…she didn’t get paid, girl…She paid to sing, girl,” says Sin-Dee, trying to quiet her captive.
“I can hear you,” says Alex, flipping her hair indignantly.
In a world only beginning to make roads into acceptance of trans actors and their stories, Tangerine’s approach to its own story assumes that those roads have long been paved. Sin-dee’s drama—part Austenian comedy, part explicit sex worker documentary—is hinged on the typically regarded “female” desires of its main characters. The accessibility of the characters’ feelings, relatability of their desires, and identifiable experiences provides surprising and sympathetic payoffs. Something that other films about the same subjects have missed, perhaps through using non-trans people to play their parts, is the essential humanness that Tangerine seems to effortlessly assign to its characters through the story of Sin-Dee and her day-long hunt on Christmas for the girl who stole her man. Despite the darkness of some of the moments, the cheer and momentum of the film allow the viewer to relate to situations and people to whom they may never before have been exposed.
Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, Mya Taylor (Alexandra) has said, “Straight from the jump I said this has to be real. Totally honest. No fabrication. And very funny.” Her realness and clear co-direction of the film provide greater insight to viewers unfamiliar with current trans issues.
With shows like Transparent and films like The Danish Girl coming into public view, and trans celebrities like Caitlin Jenner and Laverne Cox making the news this year, it shouldn’t be a surprise that a film like Tangerine accomplishes what it does. Perhaps a door has finally opened for such stories to be told without explanation or self-pity for the trans community. The clear boldness of this unapologetic trans perspective is balanced and reflected in the use of the iPhone cinematography, which adds both the grit of the street-walking characters and the trueness of the verite composition of the film.
Tangerine defies the typical and problematic ways the trans community has been portrayed. Its story isn’t about the destruction of a trans person or their “alt” lifestyle; Tangerine, at its base, is a comedy about a relatable friendship between two people who also happen to be transvestite sex workers. And the grittiness of the film doesn’t make it assume a quality of B-movie proportions; rather, the grittiness makes every scene feel as real as the characters. Knowing that it was an iPhone all along—a device many of us have on us now—is part of what makes this film so familiar, and yet spectacular, in its achievements.