I’m not sure why Sean Baker’s Tangerine is in the Fantasia Festival. It doesn’t involve aliens or kung fu or horror. It doesn’t represent the cutting edge of CGI. It does involve transsexual prostitutes and tranny/fish fights and people puking in the back of a yellow cab. It was filmed using an iphone 5S with an $8 app. Nonetheless, this funny and surprisingly compassionate film shows a world foreign, if not alien, to most viewers: the marginal world of Santa Monica. Yet, the film doesn’t turn the viewer into a voyeur or tourist. Instead, those living on society’s fringes are familiar in their capacity to feel love, friendship, and pain while being limited by their lifestyles.
On Christmas Eve, Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is out from her 28-day-stay in prison and learns from her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) that her boyfriend/pimp Chester (James Ransone) has been cheating on her with a woman (“a fish”) whose name starts with D. Enraged, Sin-Dee begins an epic search to find Miss D. She combs Santa Monica’s shady drug fronts, food lines, motels, and streets hoping to get some answers to the rumor. Alexandra tries to stop her friend on the ridiculous quest while at the same time promoting her drag show taking place that night at 7 p.m. Looming is not-quite-a-family-man Armenian cab driver, Ramzi (Karren Karagulian), who between taxi clients seeks his preferred sexual partners on the strip.
As Sin-Dee walks the city streets and eventually finds Miss D., filmmaker Sean Baker captures a world of tacky buildings, marginal lives, and artifice. No one in this film is a beautiful starlet (the closest is the young prostitute that Ramzi picks up by accident only to discover in horror that she has a vagina). The transgender prostitutes are by no means the glamorous type lounging around in feathers and fur. The drug clocker Chester looks like he was rejected from the cast of Clerks, a seedy adolescent in his hoodie and a tear tattoo, conducting his tiny drug and ho empire out of Donut Time and a burrito joint. There is vividness and realness in the dialogue, in the clothing, in the situations that arise. I was struck even by the portrayal of the police not as hot headed violence mongers, but a kind of slightly stiff authority doling out a solution.
What I kept coming back to while watching and what this film does so masterfully is that the characters are more than just stereotypes of street life. The characters have feelings, deep and recognizable feelings. Sin-Dee and Ramzi feel guilt when they realize they’re missing Alexandra’s show and race to correct the error. The expression and outlet of these feelings is very much aligned with who these characters are and this works to build a very rich world. When Sin-Dee has to go without her hair, Alexandra offers her own wig in compensation. The confrontations between characters are fueled by understandable hurts like cheating and betrayal. The mundane becomes epic — a bus journey with one shoe, a fight over $40 — because to these characters these are huge obstacles.
I think what especially elevates this film and has earned it so much praise is its humanity and its love for its very flawed characters. The creation of the Santa Monica underworld might be an unexplored planet for most of us, but the basic interconnections between people is not altered by gender, race, class, or orientation.
Tangerine played at Fantasia. The festival continues until August 4. For shows and tickets, click HERE Tangerine also opens at Cinema Excentris on August 21.