Review: Transgender Comedy Tangerine Is an Entertaining Slice of a Unique Life

An imperfect but fascinating film that's worth a look.
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The new film Tangerine falls somewhere between shows like Broad City and films such as Clerks. Its messy DIY spirit is at once an obstacle and selling point; from the on-the-streets scenes to the iPhone photography and casting of inexperienced leads. It takes getting used to the look and tone of this film to truly engage, but once you settle in, the movie is often entertaining and happens to focus on a “day in the life” of two transgender, African American prostitutes working the streets in California … a demographic we very rarely see anchor a film. And it’s a comedy. Oh, and it had a pretty big opening weekend, earning an average of $16,000 per theater (it is currently only in four theaters in NY and LA).

I went to one of those theaters this weekend to see the film, not only because I had somehow missed the previous press screenings, but also because I wanted to see the film with an audience. Turns out, Tangerine’s audience (at least in New York) was pretty varied in age, race, gender, and sexuality. That’s exactly what a film like this needs, because it’s making a very conscious effort to avoid being marketed as something for niche audiences. Clearly, the reviews convinced audiences to see the film (based on that opening, it’ll probably see a wider release). And while I don’t agree with all the films’ near universal praise, the movie is certainly worthy of the attention it is receiving … and not just bonus points for focusing on a demographic we rarely see in films in general, but especially in broad comedies.

The movie has been called everything from the “best movie of the year” to “a must see.” Do I agree? Honestly, no. But it is often a very good movie and one the public (not just the transgender community) should seek out for a night out. It’s set on Christmas Eve and focuses on the day for the newly released (from jail) Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor), as they look for clients, seek out a Sin-Dee’s cheating ex-boyfriend (James Ransone) and his new girlfriend (Mickey O’Hagan), and prepare for Alexandra’s Christmas cabaret performance. There’s also an Arminian cab driver (Karren Karagulian) who is a regular customer of both Alexandra and Sin-Dee.

I’ll be honest: I wish Karagulian didn’t have such a large role in the film, which is almost equal to Alexandra and Sin-Dee’s screen time. The movie’s clearly made to take a nonjudgmental look at a world we rarely see—at the lives of these working girls—but Karagulian is constantly being inserted in the film from the very beginning, before he’s been introduced through these women. It feels almost like footage shot later to extend the length of the film to feature length (the film is only 87 minutes long, and it throws off the balance of the entire film … particularly the extended sequences of his very unrealistic mother-in-law0. Bringing him into the film only when he interacts with Alexandra and Sin-Dee would have felt better and less forced, as Baker does with O’Hagan and The Wire’s Ransone.

The movie should, at the core, be about Sin-Dee and Alexandra’s friendship, and how it’s their foundation in this impossibly difficult world. The problem is that we get very little time with them together at the very beginning to establish that fact. And when they finally reunite, multiple side characters are with them. Even 10 minutes longer towards the beginning, before Sin-Dee goes hunting for Ransone’s Chester, would have balanced the film out and stressed that part of the reason Sin-Dee is having a breakdown is because she doesn’t have Alexandra. What the film benefits from instead (and uses to fill in those gaps), is the fact that the actresses have a very good rapport and comic chemistry. The film’s best scenes are their conversational ones which bookend the film, and part of that is because neither seem to be working as hard at “acting.” And while both are untrained and clearly inexperienced actresses, they have more than enough charisma and comic timing. Rodriguez is the broader of the two, and occasionally goes too big to be believable, while Taylor is the more reserved, but also perhaps the better actress of the two.

As I mentioned, Rodriguez’s character occasionally goes “really big” and there are several moments when Baker’s choices to make the film seem “raw and authentic” hurts this comic, character based film. For example, Sin-Dee is a live wire, which can be funny, but at one point she goes too far and drags, hits, and chokes O’Hagan’s character in a scene which makes her hard to want to follow. We don’t see enough of Sin-Dee in the everyday before this happens to see any justification for this kind of act, and Baker then has to spend time recovering the character we should have empathy for. The audience I was in noticeably changed after that scene and become more reserved, which I don’t think Baker intended to happen.

As for Baker, I’m conflicted regarding his films. Maybe he’s just not for me. Marketing a movie as “the first movie shot entire on an iPhone” isn’t really a selling point for me. I honestly have no idea how shooting this film on an iPhone “enhanced” the cinematic experience, particularly compared to using any other relatively good small camera. A lot of cameras are small enough to get into the confined spaces and close quarters he needed, and like it or not, watching iPhone footage on a big screen isn’t a very pleasant (or relaxing) experience. There were also times when I felt he really wanted to have a more “cinematic, high-octane moment” on screen, and had to depend on music to set the tone, rather than the cinematography. But I also understand why this movie had to be made with the financial, time, and technical restrictions it has (although I’m pretty sure Baker owns a better camera, considering he’s made other films), and if this is what it takes to get any transgender comedy into theaters, I’m glad he did what he did. So while I’m uncomfortable commenting on a movie for all the backstory surrounding it, this is one time when I think it’s necessary.

This year, we’ve had two theatrically released transgender comedies which aimed not only at representing the transgender community, but showing that their stories could appeal to a variety of audiences. Honestly, I preferred the other film released this year, Boy Meets Girl, but both are more than worth a look (and look at very different communities), and could be key films in seeing more acceptance of these stories from Hollywood in the future … not just transgender characters with cis-gender actors, but films made by transgender filmmakers and starring transgender actors with bigger budgets and higher technical proficiency. Which is why the fact that this movie has been critically embraced, made money, and found a wider audience than expected is so important: because it gives Hollywood no excuse for not sitting up and paying attention to this community.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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