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article imageReview: ‘Tangerine’ is about more than a commonplace camera Special

By Sarah Gopaul     Jul 15, 2015 in Entertainment
Sundance hit ‘Tangerine’ earns praise not only for being shot on an iPhone, but also its unabashed portrayal of transgender sex workers in Los Angeles.
There was a trend in ‘90s and early 2000s cinema to build narratives around provocative characters without a specific or traditional story attached. The film simply chronicled a day in their lives in which they were forced to manage a certain uncommon situation or as they went about their daily routine, introducing viewers to other fascinating personalities and lifestyles. They often unfolded amongst society’s disadvantaged, and were the bread-and-butter of indie filmmakers. Tangerine revisits this story structure with style and energy while being shot entirely on the iPhone 5S.
Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is released on Christmas Eve after spending 28 days in jail. Now that she’s out, her best friend and fellow transgender sex worker Alexandra is filling her in on what she missed. However, when Alexandra (Mya Taylor) accidentally lets slip that Sin-Dee’s boyfriend and pimp, Chester (James Ransone), was cheating with another woman while she was away it’s more than she can handle. Sin-Dee launches into a rampaging hunt for the girl whose name begins with “D” (Mickey O'Hagan) and then proceeds to track down Chester. In the meantime, Alexandra hands out flyers and encourages people to attend her Christmas Eve performance at a local club that night. The third protagonist is Razmik (Karren Karagulian), an Armenian cab driver who spends his time driving around intoxicated customers and uses his earnings to pay for transgender prostitutes. He soon discovers juggling his love for his family and a crush on Sin-Dee is even more difficult with a meddling mother-in-law.
In this uncomplicated narrative, the above basically summarizes the 88-minute movie. Unless you count Sin-Dee’s irrational quest for justice as a goal, the film doesn’t really have one. Yet the attention-grabbing characters draw viewers into their stories, keeping them engaged and entertained for the length of the picture. It doesn’t shy away from some of their harsher realities, including random attacks, substance abuse and violent disagreements. Yet the mood is kept light so it’s more comedic than melodramatic. And even though neither of the leading ladies were professional actors, they deliver reasonably convincing performances.
It’s not often transgender characters have been played by transgender performers, but that is the case in this film regardless of the size of the role. Though the portrayal of black, transgender, sex workers may appear stereotypical and unbecoming, the script was developed with Taylor’s guidance and completed with her and Rodriguez’s approval as well as anecdotes from some of the people encountered during the production. The spotlight is now on the transgender community thanks to celebrities like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, and this is just one depiction of another segment of that community.
Writer/director Sean Baker’s sole employment of an iPhone for shooting creates colour-saturated images that match the vivacity of the narrative. The angles are not always flattering, but the fact that it’s less intrusive than a traditional camera creates a more authentic atmosphere in which the stories can evolve. Baker produces an attractive film that complements the subject matter by combining conventional techniques and accessible technology, recalling an earlier style of independent cinema.
Though much of the attention and praise aimed at the movie has been focused on the unique shooting method, its progressive nature is matched by the film’s script and casting which deserve equal applause. The film is currently playing in select cities across Canada and U.S., as well as the Fantasia International Film Festival.
Director: Sean Baker
Starring: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor and Karren Karagulian
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