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Love, Betrayal, and Donuts

Someone told me that my characters are all abnormal in one way or another. They deviate from the norm…I realize that, without really wanting to, I’m drawn to unique people. Since we can’t put every person in front of the camera, we have to look for special people, or ordinary people in special circumstances.

– Abbas Kiarostami, Cannes 1997

Any resident of Los Angeles is familiar with the infamous intersection of Highland and Santa Monica Blvd. Punctuated by the cartoonish confectionary Donut Time, the corner acts as an unofficial Red Light district for all things drugs and prostitution. Shooting entirely on an iPhone 5, Sean Baker’s sun-drenched and sugar-addled Tangerine provides a walking tour of a subculture most of us experience in brief passing on the other side of a car window.

The film opens with Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), two African-American transgender sex workers and best friends, sharing a doughnut to celebrate Sin-Dee’s release from prison on Christmas Eve. Whatever similarities these two share on the surface, personality wise, they could not be further apart. Sin-Dee is brash and loud, a slave to her emotions without any thought given to consequences. Alexandra is the definition of poised and rational, if not a tad snooty towards her fellow prostitutes. Their celebratory donut is soon cut short when Alexandra reveals Sin-Dee’s pimp/boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone), has been cheating on her with a white fish (a cisgender woman). This sets Sin-Dee off on a ravenous quest to track down the treacherous Chester and his elusive fish, Dinah.

This skeleton of a plot is really more of a pretext for Baker to present vignettes from this cultural microcosm. What starts as Sin-Dee’s mission of revenge soon breaks off to follow Alexandra, sticking the viewer literally in the back seat as she turns a trick for Razmik (Karren Karagulian), a closeted Armenian cabdriver. With each new scene, Baker sets up an all-too-familiar lurid street scenario, only to have it collapse into farce.

With its wry examination of outsider, criminal, and queer culture, Tangerine is largely indebted to the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The over-saturated digital palette and micro-budget crane and dolly shots might well have been the German director’s very own had he lived to see 2015. Even Baker’s appropriation of the Comedy of Manners template recalls Fassbinder’s own obsession with classic Hollywood Melodramas.

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A less obvious influence, but one that is perhaps far more impactful, is that of the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. An early advocate of consumer digital cameras (Ten, ABC Africa) and non-actors in lead roles, Kiarostami foreshadows Baker’s use of the iPhone and the real-life characters to create a unique cinematic vision. Thematically, the two filmmakers shares the same interest in everyday struggles of the working class, slightly reframed with the transgender sex workers of America. Tangerine’s deceptively simple story is similar to Kiarostami’s own Where is the Friend’s House? Even Razmik could be seen as a cinematic relative to Mr. Badii, the suicidal taxi driver in Taste of Cherry.

What all three filmmakers share is an undying empathy for the people that populate their films. Much like in a Fassbinder film, the characters of Tangerine are not the easiest people to love. Sin-Dee is particularly caustic, knocking food from a homeless man and kidnapping Dinah, dragging her barefoot around Hollywood. By the end of the film, everyone’s ugly side is on display, yet the longer each character resides onscreen, the more relatable they become. For all their flaws and bizarre lifestyles, it is clear that these people are intrinsically and undeniably human.

The most radical thing about Tangerine is that this low-budget indie film about two black, transgender, disenfranchised, crack smoking prostitutes…happens to be a classic screwball comedy. The dark fatalism of Fassbinder and stark minimalism of Kiarostami have been cast aside in favor of broad entertainment. It is a refreshing choice considering these character types are so often portrayed as victims in gritty dramas. If they do make it into comedies, it is usually as a vulgar caricature where the punch-line is the fact that a man dresses in drag (Woody Harrelson’s cross-dressing cameo in the Adam Sandler vehicle, Anger Management comes to mind).

Unfortunately, the jokes themselves happen to be the weakest link of the film. It relies so much on cheap, gross-out humor involving vomit and other bodily fluids that it begins to feel like a latter-day straight-to-DVD National Lampoon film. When Alexandra’s john refuses to pay her, physically warding her off only to have the camera zoom in as she quips, “You forget I have a dick too,” before overpowering him. Baker is clearly confident in this kind of material, but what is essentially a mildly amusing line is built up to as if Groucho himself handcrafted it. The unintended result being that most of the comedy comes off as well-worn and obnoxious.

Despite the fact that I did not find this film, a comedy, particularly funny, I would still recommend it to everyone reading this article. Tangerine submerges its audience so completely into, what is, an alien world for many of us, yet by the end make us feel right at home. It is truly a cinematic experience; perhaps more than any other film this year, and one that should not be missed.