12 Days of X-Mas: Tangerine
There’s a pretty well-cited quote from Roger Ebert about one of the best qualities of movies, as "a machine that generates empathy." You find yourself experiencing the life presented in the stories, not just being a voyeur on someone else's story. It’s not just a simple presentation from the director to the viewer, it’s a shared moment of humanity. This is the experience I had with Tangerine, and why I feel it’s worthy of the Christmas canon.
Tangerine follows the story of Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), fresh from a short stretch in jail for holding drugs for her pimp and boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone). During her homecoming at the local Donut Time with her best friend and roommate, Alexandra (Mya Taylor), Sin-Dee finds out Chester was unfaithful during her time in jail with a ‘real fish’, a cis-gender hetero prostitute named Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan). Sin-Dee sets out on a mission to find Chester, prowling the seedier streets of Hollywood for the woman she deems responsible for her man straying, while Alexandra does her best to restrain her friend's fiery intentions, as well as find the money and the audience for her own special showcase that evening. We are also treated to scenes from the cab of Razmik (Karren Karagulian), an Armenian immigrant supporting his family whose path crosses with Alexandria, Sin-Dee and the others throughout the story.
Tangerine is an easy enough film to distill into big ideas and bold print titles - the indie film shot on iPhones, the one about transexual sex workers. Its above the title descriptors are the kind of labels that make it a curiosity of cinephiles, and a cobra’s nest of politics and content you might not want to tackle with your family over hot cocoa. It’s the kind of Christmas movie you should share with the people in your life who reflect the bonds of friendship and companionship that gets shared in the quiet moments of the movie. And Tangerine is a reflection of a Christmas that exists outside of the carols and traditional standards of the season, when the real world butts up against the weird fantasy of lights, ornaments and visions of sugar plums.
Taking place in Southern California, a mediterranean climate where Christmas Day is often in the 70 degrees range, the story jettisons any reflections of a "White Christmas". The days are bright, the sun is comfortable, and there’s a grittiness and worn texture to almost everything that's interacted with. An exchange between another cab driver from Razmik’s company and a woman looking for Razmik features a funny but reflective moment about how the climate doesn’t feel like Christmas, a very relatable moment and feeling for me as a citizen of the desert southwest of Arizona.
Taking a queue from the climate, director Sean Baker mostly eschews the Christmas standards and instead drives the movie with pulsing music that wouldn’t be out of place on a dance floor. In the movies more quiet moments, classical strings rise to juxtapose the harsh reality of the world around Alex and Sin-Dee. The score is interrupted by a beautiful performance of ‘Toyland’, and I find this be an especially nice moment of contrast by Baker; the song has become a Christmas standard, while the film it’s from, Babes In Toyland, has little to do with Christmas save childish aspirations and dreams.
There’s harsh realities about the fringe of society trans people, and especially trans people of color, embodied in the film, made more salient by the actresses' feedback and participation in the story. After an exchange with a perspective john turns confrontational. The altercation is broken up by a local officer who offers to have all parties leave the scene so they don’t have to call their families from jail on Christmas Eve. Alexandra replies with "Family?", backed by the pain of someone who has lost a world they once knew. When Sin-Dee’s real motivation for chasing Chester is revealed towards the end of the film, Chester’s admission of one last infidelity seems to splinter Sin-Dee’s and Alexandra’s relationship, and the two appear to be parting ways.
In the waning moments, Sin-Dee approaches a car attempting to engage in a job. The car of young men shout slurs and throws a cup of urine at her. Alexandra, not far away, rushes back and guides her to an all night laundry where she helps Sin-Dee clean her clothes and wig. Frustrated and stripped of her identity, Sin-Dee ponders on how she looks without her hair; comforting her friend, Alexandra takes off her wig and hands it to Sin-Dee. They exchange compliments and hold hands as the screen cuts to black, in a unity of friendship, and a moment of peace. It’s a truer reflection of classical Christmas ideals than anything featuring a reindeer or a man in a red suit. It’s a striking moment and one that will make you focus on what really matters right when you think you’ve given up on the world and the people in it.
Tangerine is currently streaming on Netflix U.S.