Tangerine isn’t your average flick about a cracked-out trans prostitute hellbent on getting revenge
On all the circle-jerking best-of lists that inevitably include Mad Max: Fury Road and Inside Out, there was a film that made the cut which deserves more. It is Sean Baker’s phenomenally acted, iPhone shot, Netflix-available Tangerine. It is 2015’s most important film, and here’s why.
“Sin-Dee Rella is like any normal… cracked-out whore, who’s just been released from jail,” deadpans actress Kiki Kitana Rodriguez in the film’s featurette. She’s talking as if this is unremarkable, as if we all know a streetwalker who just made bail. But for a time, this was Rodriguez’s normal. Formerly a sex worker herself, Rodriguez and her co-star Mya Taylor provided an “in” for director Sean Baker. He was researching the underworld of Hollywood’s so-called “red-light district”, which you can pinpoint to the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue, before he started production.
The movie came out of left field and was armed to the teeth with the kind of stuff journalists love to squeeze into headlines: It played Sundance festival’s obscure Next section! It was completely filmed on three iPhone 5s! It’s about a trans prostitute, fresh out of the clink, who goes on a revenge crusade to get back at her pimp/boyfriend! Along the way, the twosome bump into other girls working the block. Their mission gets waylayed when Sin-Dee finds the makeshift motel/brothel where the homewrecker her boyfriend cheated on her with is housed. Tangerine is a madcap story about underdogs, and doesn’t shy away from the more unsavoury bits. There is plenty of hair-pulling, dick-sucking and meth-smoking – and one staggering karaoke performance.
Even the making of the film is a story. “I remember standing on the corner of Santa Monica and Highland on the night of the Golden Globes, which were happening a few blocks away wondering where I had taken a wrong turn in my career because I was being filmed on a phone as a meth head ruined our shot to ask me for change,” recalls James Ransone, who plays the seedy, cheating pimp.
Tangerine is the most honest story that has hit screens this year; you can argue until you’re blue in the face whether or not the film was made to capitalise on a year that saw Caitlyn Jenner crowned Glamour’s Woman of the Year, one that saw Laverne Cox get her own Madame Tussaud’s wax figure. But the film’s not just a string of hashtaggable tropes. The underlying story is one of unbreakable friendship, of overcoming obstacles with a fierce, uncompromising will. Magnolia Pictures, the distribution company behind the film, was so surprised by its reception that it has launched an Oscar campaign for the film. It marks first time a movie distributor has backed an awards season push for a trans actress in Hollywood history.
I doubt it will win an Oscar. Not when the Academy’s voting powers are whiter and older than a Hampstead Heath boules league. They’ll go for a safer option: maybe The Revenant, where Leo DiCaprio proves his machismo on a bear hunt. If they do opt to take a ‘risk’, maybe Todd Haynes’ Carol, about a clandestine affair between lesbians. Or The Danish Girl, where Eddie Redmayne plays the first trans person to undergo gender reassignment surgery.
Here’s why Tangerine is so important. It’s funny. It’s a movie that, despite it’s weighty story, you’d just want to watch. That it’s a vehicle for two trans lead actresses to tell their story in an unfiltered, humour-filled way renews my faith in Hollywood. With a plot suggested by Rodriguez and her experiences, it could have easily been bleak. According to the National Coalition of Anti Violence Programs, 2015 is the deadliest year on record for trans people. 22 trans women have been found murdered this year in the US alone.
In spite of those stats, Tangerine – in its not-so-small way – is normalizing transgender experiences and fast-tracking trans visibility. However, any agenda (if there even is one) takes a backseat to unadulterated entertainment, mainlined in choice lines like, “You didn’t have to Chris Brown the bitch!”
Tangerine is exactly how you get people to care about trans rights.