‘TANGERINE’ is a low-budget indie film shot on an i-Phone and with a cast of total unknowns. We got interested in it as it gained so much acclaim in spite of its limitations. The film opens on Christmas Eve with two black transgenders talking in a restaurant. Sin Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) just came out from a four-week stay in prison for drugs and is talking with her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor).
They are both sex workers working in the streets of Los Angeles. By accident, Sin Dee learns from Alexandra that her white boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone), a drug dealer who is the reason she got jailed, has been cheating lon her. He is also her pimp who she intends to marry, but while she’s imprisoned, he hooks up with a real woman who’s also white, Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan ).
Sin Dee is so outraged that she storms out of the store to look for her boyfriend and his lover right away. Alexandra, who’s busy promoting her concert that night by giving away its flyers in the street, tries to stop her, but she’s hellbent on confronting Chester and Dinah. We see Sin Dee walking and walking all over town on the warpath as she searches for them.
She finally finds Dinah in a whorehouse. She hits her, drags her out and forces her to join her in her frantic search for the two-timing Chester. But first, they have to go Alexandra’s show to support her. While they’re in the bar’s restroom with Alexandra, Sin Dee and Dinah become friendlier with each other. Dinah has drugs and they do it together then Sin Dee even applies make up on Dinah.
After the show, they continue their search for Chester. Intertwined with their story is that of an Armenian taxi driver, Razmik (Karren Karegulian), who is married and has a kid, but lives a double life. He pays for sex, but not with real women. He prefers to have sex with transgenders. But instead of them going on down on him, he’s the one who gives them head.
In a very ingenious shot sequence, he is shown fellating a transgender while his cab is going through a car wash’s cleaning machine. In the evening, he has Christmas Eve dinner with family then goes out again and looks for Sin Dee. His mother-in-law becomes suspicious and follows him.
She follows Razmik to the donut shop where Sin Dee is now confronting Chester who insists Dinah does not really mean anything to him. Razmik joins the fray and Chester reveals to his mother in law that the supposedly responsible family man is actually fond of having dirty sex with transgender prostitutes.
The film is presented ostensibly as a comedy with loud-mouthed transgenders who have no breeding, but in its core, it’s actually very sad and we pity the characters despite their boisterous, riotous shenanigans. One of the saddest scenes shows Alexandra singing the dreamy “Toyland” in her concert to a nearly empty bar.
It’s revealed later that she was even actually the one who paid the bar owner just to let her perform there. Almost everyone has a sad ending, even Dinah who goes back to the brothel where she works but is not accepted anymore. Razmik’s wife learns about his dark proclivity.
Chester reveals that he also bedded Alexandra and Sin Dee, feeling all the more betrayed, runs away into the street. She tries to solicit a client in a car, but he only throws a cup of urine on her face and insults her. Alexandra helps clean her up and they reconcile.
The film delves into the distinct subculture of transgender sex workers in L.A. and it looks like it’s really thriving there, specially in that scene where Sin Dee rushes into Dinah’s brothel and we see so many customers having sex during the middle of the afternoon.
The terrain surveyed is obviously harsh, portraying a very raw and savage secret lalaland that shows how rampant perversion is. We don’t know if the actors are real transgender sex workers but Director Sean Baker succeeds in drawing out a fierce kind of authenticity to their roles with a feel of amateur improvisation.
At first, we don’t sympathize at all with any of them, but in the end, although we don’t want to judge them, you realize that these bitches, as they call each other, are all quite pitiful in their very miserable lives as unfortunate dregs of society most viewers won’t be able to relate with.