Director Sean Baker
USA 2015, 88 mins. 13 November 2015 (UK)
Playing London Film Festival 2015
Donuts feature heavily in Sean Baker’s Tangerine, and watching this film is the equivalent of eating about 500 of them in one sitting. This film is a shot of dayglo-coloured adrenaline to the vein, a vat of sugar poured into the eyes. Fast, foul-mouthed and outrageously funny, this shot-as-real-time drama takes you on a flâneur-type ramble through the wild side of LA by day and night, and you won’t want to leave.
Baker and his co-cinematographer Radium Cheung filmed Tangerine on their iPhone 5s with lens adaptations, catching most scenes with just two cameras and dolly shots filmed from cycles. The result is a close-up, intimate trawl through a hyper-saturated city of angels, with the potent feeling of immediacy heightened by a thumping gunshot-heavy score and rapid-fire editing. For most of the running time, these cameras are keeping up alongside Sin-Dee Rella and her best friend Alexandra, two transgender working girls who know their way around the block and don’t take any bullshit.
Sin-Dee Rella is a scatology-heavy motormouth and drama queen extraordinaire, while the more world-weary Alexandra is clearly the one who has to pull her friend’s ass out of the fire on a daily basis. You totally buy transgender non-actors Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez as both friends and three-dimensional characters, and their banter is so naturalistic and funny that if the film had just been 90 minutes of them bitching in a car park it would’ve been gold. They aren’t the only sex workers we will meet during the events of the film; an entire downtown sex worker culture – trans and cis gender – is shown to us over the course of one day, one that operates to its own rhythms and contains its own networks of knowledge, support and slang.
But this is a film about movement, and standing around is not something Sin-Dee Rella intends to do much of, not least given Alexandra reveals to her in the first five minutes that her beau, local pimp Chester, has been cheating on her with a ‘white fish’ (a Caucasian female-born woman) while she was in prison. Having processed that shocking information over a donut, Sin-Dee declares she is going to find Chester’s new girl, beat her up, and basically haul her across town to confront Chester. It turns out she is not joking, and in short order Sin-Dee pinballs from donut shops to karaoke bars, bus stops to brothels, until things collide in Chester’s ‘place of business’ in a scene that plays like some warped version of a 1940s screwball comedy of manners. All the while Alexandra tries to get through a day’s work and prep for her vocal performance at a local bar, all whilst knowing she will probably get caught up in Sin-Dee’s drama.
With all the meth-smoking, bitch-slapping, door-kicking and trash-talking going on, it is easy to think that Tangerine has been set up to be enjoyed as a high-energy comedic dive into the world of lowlifes. But in fact, through little moments like Sin-Dee sharing her drug stash with the very prostitute she just beat up and dragged around, or Alexandra trading her wig in a dingy laundromat with her downcast friend, the film gradually shifts towards being a quite tender and bittersweet salute to female friendship and solidarity on the mean streets. Given how this film already has refreshingly busted casting taboos alongside being a hugely funny experience, this extra layer of emotional complexity is just the icing on a quite beautiful donut.