Tangerine may be a micro-budget indie shot on an iPhone but no one could accuse director Sean Baker of going small.
This gorgeously wrought, outsized melodramedy is an adrenaline rush—a sun-bleached, bass-pumping homage to Los Angeles and the people who call it home.
Two such people, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), are best friends and sex workers who pound the streets at Santa Monica and Highland, enjoying the occasional sweet treat from Donut Time. They’re also both young trans women.
In the film’s opening moments, Sin-Dee, fresh from a 28-day stint in jail, finds out her pimp boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) has been stepping out on her. With a biological woman, or as Alexandra describes her, “real white fish—with vagina and everything.”
Thus begins Sin’s day-long Christmas Eve odyssey to confront Chester. Along the way, the film shines a spotlight on the tarnished American dream and the people it often passes by.
I spoke with Taylor (“Miss Taylor,” to you) and Ransone about what it was like to dig into these funny, melancholy and loud characters, and why Tangerine is one of the must-see films of the summer.
“Alexandra is exactly like [me]—Except I don’t do sex work,” Taylor explains. “And the whole gossip thing, actually—I don’t do that.”
Though she won’t admit it, Taylor also shares a charisma and overflowing confidence with Alexandra, Tangerine’s level-headed heart.
She’s quick to clarify, though, that Ransone, “is the complete opposite of Chester,” the quick-lipped but dopey overseer of a group of young prostitutes.
“I met a couple of dudes from the neighborhood and I took certain character traits that they had and I just tried to amplify them to a degree that wasn’t there,” he said of his transformation into the pimp that breaks Sin-Dee’s heart.
Amazingly, despite his reprehensible actions, Chester still comes off likeable.
“I tried to play the funny of it,” Ransone says. “But I also knew I didn’t want to hold back. Not once did I worry about how I would come across. If I started feeling self-conscious I knew this character wouldn’t be good.”
No one shies away from extremes in Tangerine. Least of all its director: Baker, whose observations of the working men and women around his Hollywood home served as the brazen—at times skirting on offensive—inspiration for the realistic tale.
Life is hard for the denizens of Tangerine. And though Taylor has gotten steady work—she just shot her next film, Happy Birthday, Marsha! in which she stars as groundbreaking trans-activist Marsha P. Johnson—she does recognize that trans women, and particularly trans women of color, are often marginalized.
“A lot of the trans roles do revolve around sex work, I guess you could say,” she notes, “But my manager will send me on auditions for regular women [roles], too,” she told me with a smile. “I guess since that’s what I look like.”
Taylor counts herself lucky to be among a group of pioneering trans women in the entertainment industry: “This whole thing has been wonderful—to be a part of the trans movement,” she declares, rattling off Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, Ts Madison (her favorite) and Carmen Carrera. “It feels good to be a part of all these girls.”
And what about those who won’t appreciate Tangerine’s portrayal of trans women of color—selling their bodies, fighting, smoking meth?
“Honestly? I don’t give a fuck,” Taylor says bluntly. “Everybody is gonna have their own opinion. The truth is the truth. There are sex workers in that area, Santa Monica and Highland. And their story needed to be told. And it’s told now.”
A step removed from their struggle, Ransone says he understands why the film could face backlash: “If you’ve been marginalized for a really long period of time, however you’ve been marginalized–trans, black, women— and the culture just begins to accept you, you’ve got a lot of grievances there.”
But he also hopes that people will embrace Tangerine for its artistry: “We made a piece of art. And we are in a really weird moment where we have to defend art politically. I wish more things in American culture at large made people angry, or at least provoked a discussion. I think there’s something to be said for that.”
There’s a great deal to be said about Tangerine, from its canny use of music—holiday classics mingling with harsh bass beats—to its fascinating side plots—Alexandra’s dream of being a performer, the Armenian cab driver with a thing for trans women.
And the deeply felt friendship at the film’s core.
But most of all, Tangerine strives to tell a story that could make many people uncomfortable, about a subset of society that has long gone unmentioned. That authenticity is its most important attribute: With stars and a story this real, Tangerine is an undeniable cinematic achievement.
Tangerine opens in New York and L.A. on July 10