A DIFFERENT KIND OF HOLLYWOOD PICTURE ("TANGERINE")
[A version of this review appeared in the Portland Observer, here: http://portlandobserver.com/news/2016/jan/05/gritty-tangerine-my-best-2015-list/]
2015 has been lauded as a big year for films and television involving LGBTQ subjects -- with lots of awards buzz particularly for "The Danish Girl" (which I wrote about last week) and "Carol," the extremely stylish 1950s lesbian love story starring the very fine Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. While I found much to admire in both those heavily art-directed, big-budget films ($15 million and $11 million, respectively), the queer story that will end up on my list of the 10 best films of the year is the far grittier "Tangerine," which had its theatrical release in July and is now available on DVD and streaming.
Made on a tiny budget of $100,000, "Tangerine" is the quintessentially Hollywood picture. Shot entirely on iPhone 5s smartphones equipped with a special app and lens equipment, the story lives in a part of Hollywood just a short distance from the land of dreams we typically think of, but rarely featured or accorded such dignity and specificity, a world of sex workers and immigrants and others at the margins. Decisions necessitated by budget limitations required of the filmmakers ingenuity, flexibility, and humor very in-keeping with the qualities required of the two trans women of color at the center of this story, and the result is a bracingly realistic look at a community too few of us even begin to understand.
Director Sean Baker – a self-described cisgender white male -- makes social realist films about outsiders, and if this picture is any indication, he approaches those stories in the right way. Here, he set out to make a film about the unofficial red-light district of Hollywood, which was near his home but not part of his experience, and began by walking those very streets with his co-writer, Chris Bergoch, in search of a collaborator who could guide them into the world those streets contained. The two attracted mostly indifference and suspicion until they encountered Mya Taylor at the local LGBTQ center. She captured their attention, was intrigued by their ideas for the film, and eventually introduced them to her friend Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. Baker enlisted the two trans women, both already interested in breaking into the entertainment business but having had little opportunity to show what they could do, to star in the film. Taylor and Rodriguez educated the filmmakers about "the block" and influenced the shape the story took.
Give a listen to a terrific interview that Taylor and Baker did with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air after you watch the film. Among other things, Taylor talks frankly about her own life as a former sex worker -- the oppression that drove her to that life and the unthinkable challenges of living it. She bravely participated in the film during her own transition, and it's clear that her lived experiences grounded this fictional story in ways we don't often see reflected on the big screen. I can't imagine that many people who have the privilege necessary to make a film even begin to realize and respond to their own ignorance as Baker did, which explains why we so rarely see films that even attempt stories as visceral as this one, or that succeed in telling them so truthfully.
The film is, at heart, a story of the friendship between these two women. It opens on Christmas Eve with Sin Dee Rella (Rodriguez), just released from serving a 28-day jail term, sharing with her friend the single red-and-green sprinkled donut she can afford. Alexandra (Taylor) lets slip what she thought Sin Dee already knew: that her pimp/boyfriend/fiancé Chester has been two-timing her with a "white fish" (a vulgar expression denoting a white woman who is chromosomally female). After Alexandra insists that Sin Dee "look at me in my eyes" and promise "no drama," Sin Dee nevertheless embarks on a full-tilt quest to find "Desiree or Destiny or Dee Dee" (it turns out to be Dinah) and to communicate in no uncertain terms to her and to Chester that Sin Dee will not be so disrespected.
The dreams of these Hollywood women drive the story. Though daily life requires both to field ridicule, harassment, and assaults, Alexandra (mostly) treats Sin Dee's hopes for Chester with seriousness, and Sin Dee (mostly) accords dignity to Alexandra's dreams of music stardom, even as Sin Dee knows her friend has paid for the upcoming nightclub gig advertised on the hand-made flyers Alexandra hands out to everyone she meets. Eventually, after Sin Dee stomps through the neighborhood in search of Dinah and then Chester, and Alexandra tussles with an errant john and encounters an Armenian cab driver who is clearly a frequent customer (and has his own back story), the various stories culminate in a cacophonous confrontation in the same donut shop where we began.
Along the way, each character has her or his moments of shame and triumph, though often neither is fairly won. Life on these streets is clearly full of just the sort of drama Alexandra sought to avoid; the stakes are always high and resources are spare or nonexistent. But on the advice of Baker's stars and collaborators, the tone is mostly comic; these women survive by their wits, and that includes a balance of taking themselves seriously and not seriously at all. It's a smart dramatic choice that pulls you just deeply enough into their chaotic world to help you marvel appropriately at their sheer guts. The very lives of these women depend on reaching for things that feel and even are impossible, and this film helps you both grieve for and admire them.