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Another landmark film about transgender characters



In my last column, I wrote about the new ways transgender characters are being depicted on television series, and how complex and positive portrayals of Sofia on Orange is the New Black, Maura on Transparent and Nomi on Sense8 signify a sea change in transgender representation. Independent film, however, has long been on the forefront of these kinds of characters, from The Crying Game to Transamerica, and this summer we’ve been given another landmark film about transgender characters in Sean Baker’s Tangerine.

Tangerine is about one day in the lives of two transgender prostitutes who work the sidewalks of Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. It begins at the infamous hooker hangout Donut Time on the corner of Santa Monica and Highland where Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) are about to share a celebratory donut. Sin-Dee has just been released after a month in jail, and it’s the holidays. “Merry Christmas Eve, Bitch,” Sin-Dee says.

As they talk, Alexandra accidentally blurts out that Sin-Dee’s boyfriend and pimp Chester (James Ransone) has been cheating on her while she was away. Aside from the simple betrayal, this is particularly egregious for two other reasons. Sin-Dee had been in jail for possessing Chester’s drugs. And Chester’s new girlfriend is a cisgender woman, a fish. Sin-Dee is enraged, and she spends the rest of the day hunting down the fish (Mickey O’Hagan) and then Chester.

Meanwhile, a married Armenian cab driver named Razmik (Karren Karagulian) is himself searching for Sin-Dee, who he adores more than any of the other transgender prostitutes he knows and regularly procures.

Because of Sin-Dee’s amazingly foul language and the various profane events of the day, I was reminded often of Kevin Smith’s similarly low-budget Clerks,which is also a day-in-the-life of people we so often ignore, in that case convenience store clerks. Tangerine is often as funny as Clerks, but unlike the semi-competent Kevin Smith, Sean Baker is an auteur. He and his co-cinematographer Radium Cheung shot the whole film on iPhones, and while this is an amazing technical feat in and of itself, it’s the stunning compositions, saturated light, and editing of the shots that are so gorgeous and innovative.

Baker and his co-writer Chris Begoch cast two unknown transgender women as their leads, and you can tell they’re not seasoned, but that is why the film seems so authentic. When the experienced actors, like Ransone and Karagulian, appear, it seems less real, even though the professionals are so much smoother. Rodriguez in particular is thrilling as Sin-Dee, not just in her knowing, high-camp delivery of many of her lines, but also in her physicality; when she’s angry, she seems capable of anything, and this danger puts the film on edge. Taylor’s Alexandra is much calmer and wiser, and this depth makes her struggle as resonant as Razmik’s more typical plight as a man married to the wrong kind of woman.

While we’ve seen too many movies about hookers with hearts of gold, Tangerine both plays on that trope while turning it inside out. Sin-Dee and Alexandra are both very funny, but Tangerine doesn’t laugh at them, but with them. And while Baker doesn’t delve into the many reasons Sin-Dee and Alexandra are probably on the streets, their difficulties, the pathos of their daily lives, is taken for granted in every scene.

Directed by Sean Baker

Written by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch

Starring Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor and Karren Karagulian

Rated R

Opens July 17 at Landmark Ken

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Posted by on Jul 9, 2015. Filed under Movie Review. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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