Though much of it takes place on the streets of Hollywood, the Sean Baker-directed Tangerine is not the kind of film a Hollywood studio would touch with a 10-foot pole. For starters, there’s nothing at all glamorous about the lives of Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), two transgender women working the streets of Los Angeles on a hot and cloudless Christmas Eve. There are no heartwarming lessons to be learned from their various exploits, and any hint of moralizing has been smothered by the profound — and profoundly entertaining — mess of modern life. This is a film that revels in contradictions and collisions: It’s suffocating and reinvigorating, silly and kind of sad, strutting its stuff on the corner where slice-of-life drama meets screwball comedy. “Los Angeles is a beautifully wrapped lie,” one character says, and Tangerine is perhaps the direct inverse of that: a slippery kind of truth, minus the gift wrapping of a major studio film.
Life, for Sin-Dee and Alexandra, is equal parts hustle and humiliation. The film opens on the pair sharing a donut mere hours after Sin-Dee’s release from a month-long stint in jail. Within moments, Alexandra accidentally spills the dirt that Sin-Dee’s fiancé, a pimp named Chester, has been cheating on her while she’s been in the can. “All men cheat,” she says, as if that’s any consolation. “Out here, it is all about our hustle.” These lines introduce one of the film’s central questions, which explores just what relationships mean in a world in which every person serves their own interests first. As Sin-Dee storms out of the donut shop and sweeps across town like a blonde-haired cyclone, she’s ostensibly thirsty for revenge. But what she’s really trying to do is assert a measure of personal dignity: Lie to me, cheat on me, screw me over in anyway, and I’ll fuck your shit up.
This is a powerful thing. It would be easier, though less genuine, to generate sympathy for a transgender woman by highlighting her insecurities, but both Sin-Dee and Alexandra never come off as anything less than strong. Even in moments of weakness, such as when Alexandra invites all of her friends to watch her sing and none of them show up, she stares straight ahead and wills the show to go on. (And don’t even think about not paying her after she spends five minutes fondling your balls). Baker, to his credit, is not really interested in exploring questions of identity; for all of their flaws and missteps, these people know who they are and are willing to fight for what’s theirs.
The men in this film cannot claim as much. The most prominent male character is an Armenian cab driver named Razmik (Karren Karaguilian), who initially comes across as an honest, hardworking man trying to retain his own dignity while ferrying around LA’s riffraff. This image is shattered after we’re introduced to Razmik’s wife, infant daughter, and habit of going down on prostitutes in the middle of a drive-thru car wash. It’s interesting that all of this backstory is filled in later, after we become acquainted with the nobler aspects of his character. The film almost actively resists casting moral judgement upon Razmik, even as his mother-in-law makes it her personal mission to out him. In the chaotic climactic scene, he’s forced to face the consequences when both of his lives converge in a single donut shop. It’s telling that Sin-Dee and Alexandra are both present for this, watching him squirm and unable to relate to someone who has refused, so far, to be himself.
Tangerine is self-evidently a serious film and one whose subject matter should not necessarily be taken lightly. But its evolved viewpoint entertains the notion that maybe some subject matter has to be taken lightly, if we’re to understand anything at all. It’s absurd that Christmas in LA looks like summer everywhere else, and it’s absurd that we feel the need to hide our true selves from the people we love. To recognize and laugh at this absurdity, as we do often while watching a film like Tangerine, is to invite reality in for a drink.