Think you know Christmas films? Think again. Tangerine, the fifth feature from Sean Baker, is a seasonal flick like no other. It’s also a buddy comedy like no other, an exercise in guerilla filmmaking like no other – it is quite simply unlike anything you have seen before. It is essential viewing.
We meet sex workers Sin-dee Rella and Alexandra on Christmas Eve in Donut Time, a favourite hangout in West Hollywood’s sun-drenched, salacious streets. Just out of prison, Sin-dee discovers her boyfriend/pimp has been less than faithful. This revelation sets her off on a rampage around the L.A. streets in search of justice and/or revenge, on which she is sometimes wearily followed by best friend Alexandra. Along the way we meet a host of fascinating folk with whom the women engage on a daily basis, and dive into the most vibrant, hilarious and touching world I’ve seen on screen this year.
Energy throbs from every side of Tangerine. Street locations are bathed in a light that is at once scuzzy and beautiful. The interweaving of multiple narrative arcs maintains a rapid pace, and everything is brought together in a riotous final scene back at Donut Time (which was open before, after and DURING filming – customers were on occasion worked into the film). There is heartfelt drama too, especially in the friendship between the two women. The language they use just to talk about their day is quite wonderful, spiked with cursing, colloquialisms and inventive phrases of which Chaucer would be proud. You will likely hear terms you have not heard before; this is part of the fun.
Tangerine has received much coverage for it’s technical accomplishments; the entire film was shot on three iPhone 5s handsets, using a handy app called Filmic Pro and some small additions to the lens. Baker has spoken candidly about this decision, expressing a slight frustation at having to downgrade tools for his fifth film due to budget constraints. It is to his and the crew’s credit that they used a potential negative to their advantage with great invention. There are many shots that would have been far more costly, or simply impossible to achieve without the portable potential of the phone, and the film’s subsequent success serves as great inspiration for wannabe filmmakers struggling to find the funds. The method, however, mustn’t overshadow the magic; Tangerine contains a gripping narrative, pulsing music, enchanting characters and more. It would be great if it were in IMAX or on Super 8.
So that’s the film. There is something else to be said here though. Mya Taylor (Alexandra) and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez (Sin-dee) are both trans women of colour; both have done sex work previously and the characters and narrative are shaped around their lives and experiences. Without ever falling into the trap of issuetainment (supposedly entertaining films that exist to promote a topic into public debate, including much Oscar bait), Tangerine emphatically makes the case for greater diversity in film.
We need to see the stories of different people – women, trans people, people of colour – not just because everyone deserves to see themselves represented in art, but because these stories are great. By denying the visibility of under-represented people, we both dehumanise them and lessen the quality of experience available to everyone. Last month Magnolia Pictures and the Duplass brothers began the first Oscar campaign for openly transgender actors for Taylor and Rodriguez. It is a bandwagon on which I am delighted to jump. This is not tokenism; I do not support their success because they are trans, although there is a separate discussion about casting people with lived experience to play particular roles. I support it because both performances are amongst the best I have seen this year, or indeed for several years. They deserve the same opportunities available to a cisgender white man, and the same applause when they are THIS good.
Taylor was present at the London Film Festival screening I attended, and she is a bona fide star. Post-screening Q&As can be formulaic, dry affairs; she had the audience in the palm of her hand from the start, with hilarious anecdotes about the film, her director (‘I thought he was so cute, so of course I wasn’t going to blow him off’) and her experiences as a trans woman of colour. Luckily the BFI have made her charming words available here. Don’t blame me if you find yourself still watching her interviews an hour later.
Tangerine is released TODAY, November 13th in cinemas across the UK, and is the most exciting film you will see this year. Give it a shot – you won’t regret it…