Sean Baker’s Tangerine, the story of a trans sex worker, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), who rages her way through Los Angeles on a quest to confront her pimp boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone), and the girl he slept with while she was in jail for 28 days, doesn’t lack for empathy. But despite what praises and synopses of the film from the festival circuit would have one believe, its sense of compassion doesn’t arise from a direct confrontation of issues of sex, gender, and race as they pertain to the characters’ lives. Sin-Dee may be the target of anti-trans aggression at one point, but the moment is understood only as a portent of change in the character’s unbridled trajectory, rather than as a calculated infusion of anguish. Tangerine’s triumph is primarily a matter of style, a visionary revelation every bit as expressionistic as Sin-Dee’s electric sense of shade, but not far behind is the means by which the filmmakers transcend the boundaries of race and gender and sexual orientation by pretending as if they didn’t exist to begin with.
Upon learning from her friend, Alexandra (Mya Taylor), that Chester was messing around with a “real fish” (read: a girl with a “vagina and everything”), Sin-Dee rises from her seat at Donut Time and charges down the street with a spinning-top mania that matches, beat for beat, the throbbing intensity of the film’s soundtrack. Baker, who shot the entirety of the film on an iPhone 5s fitted with anamorphic adapters, lends Sin-Dee’s mission through the streets of Los Angeles a startling musicality via a series of rhythmic cutaways, dramatic pauses, and speed-ups awesomely keyed to how she perpetually orients her rampage. Early on, the world around the girl appears to respond to her rising rage: an inflatable man that appears to taunt her; signs for a blow-out sale and earthquake supplies. When the music drops, she pauses for a cigarette, as if trying to get her bearings. But as a bus pulls up nearby, an advertisement on its side reading “They will never let go,” she throws caution to the wind, and with it the loudest of battle cries: “Fuck it!”
The film’s drama takes place on Christmas Eve, and whatever spirit grips Los Angeles—described at one point as a “beautifully wrapped lie”—on this day is felt at least in the two police officers who don’t arrest Alexandra after a john stiffs her for not making him cum and the two tussle on a city street. Throughout, the holiday becomes a kind of invitation to chaos, though also, and more conventionally, a reminder of people’s devotion to others. Sin-Dee eventually catches up with the raggedy Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), dragging her onto a city bus with the intention of foisting her before Chester like a trophy of war, only to remember her commitment to attend Alexandra’s performance at a local bar. The film also proffers its own vision of a Christmas miracle, of finding sisterhood, even if it’s enabled by the effects of crack: Sin-Dee, despite her animosity for Dinah, meets her enemy halfway in the confines of a bathroom by helping her put her face on, the lights dancing around them at once suggesting Christmas-tree baubles and the strobe of a disco ball.
Tangerine, for all its wonder, is nearly undone by an unnecessary narrative thread. Braided throughout Sin-Dee and Alexandra’s storylines is a third involving a cab driver, Razmik (Karren Karagulian), whose work exists only to bring a convenient sort of anthropological attention to the politics of Los Angeles’s quasi-red-light district. It’s clear, too, that the film is laying the groundwork for a collision of worlds, but from its borderline-condescending focus on the kooks who ride Razmik’s cab, to the revelation of the man’s predilection for trans sex workers and depiction of his seemingly unhappy home life, the storyline flirts with a forced gravitas that bogs down the film’s otherwise exuberant and spontaneous moods. But to give him the benefit of the doubt, Baker seems to understand Razmik, like Chester, as beside the point, and in a final masterstroke he reconfigures the seeming incompatibility of the film’s storylines into a perfect middle ground between despair and exaltation that asserts, tenderly and fabulously, a vision of friendship being greater than trade.