Indie films tend not to focus on Christmas. It’s an ephemeral time of year that often pigeonholes films into only being watchable at that time of year: films that feel wrong to watch in summer, much more suiting a cosy winter day. Tangerine is an odd outlier in that sub-genre: a Christmas film that doesn’t feel festive at all, but instead uses the setting as a background for its surrealist humour and engaging characters. It’s an indie treat that can be enjoyed any time of year.
The film follows two trans sex workers in downtown Los Angeles: Sin-Dee (an exuberant Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) as they go about a hectic Christmas Eve. Sin-Dee is fresh out of a 28-day prison stint, only to discover that her pimp-cum-boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) has cheated on her with a mysterious woman whose name begins with a D. What ensues in the spritely 90-minute runtime is a mad dash to discover the adulterer and get some semblance of revenge, with a simultaneous subplot following the personal life of Alexandra’s beloved client Razmik (Karren Karagulian).
What’s most arresting about Tangerine is its visual design and guerrilla style of filmmaking. Both Rodriguez and Taylor made their film debuts in Tangerine, imbuing the film with a realness that makes it feel almost documentary-style at times. Dialogue feels incredibly off-the-cuff and raw, and the performances are so visceral that it truly feels like a slice of LA life. It reminded me of my wide-eyed awe in playing Grand Theft Auto V for the first time, while also capturing a raw sense of sun-drenched 2015 nostalgia that cinema rarely taps into.
In many ways, Tangerine feels like a travelogue: following these women through one hectic winter’s day as they navigate the harsh reality of street-based sex work, from transphobia to casual misogyny and infidelity. The screenplay from director Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch never tries to foreground their suffering too much, aside from one especially tender moment towards the film’s end. It handles these topics gently and with care, making for one of the best representations of the trans experience on film.
On top of that, the characters are just so engaging and easy to gravitate towards. Alexandra is a standout as Sin-Dee’s best friend, also harbouring her own secrets that come to the fore in an explosive, character-driven finale. Yet it’s Razmik, an Armenian cab driver who frequently visits these girls, who also has one of the most bombastic and emotionally charged narratives in the entire film. Tangerine doesn’t throw all these characters in your face with wave upon wave of exposition: instead we meet them organically, get to know their lives, and end up inevitably drawing close to them as a result.
It all amounts to make Tangerine feel very special. Most films that take place across one frantic day tend to lose steam, but Tangerine bounces along so nicely, and I found myself utterly engrossed with the characters and the harsh realities they face. It’s less of a wryly funny comedy than a surrealist display of such extreme circumstances, but its upbeat tempo and loveable characters means it never gets especially dark. Tangerine is a Christmas film unlike any other, but I’ll be adding it to my annual December rotation from now on.
Tangerine is out now on Blu-Ray from Second Sight Films.