Tangerine

Tangerine ★★★★½

2021 Queer Film Challenge #10: a film discussed or referenced in Willow Maclay and Caden Gardner's Body Talk conversations.

It would have been so easy for this movie to be either misery porn or inspiration porn. Its protagonists — two Black trans sex workers, one of them recently out of jail — are certainly living life on hard mode. But Tangerine is full of love, in much the same way that I remember Nights of Cabiria being full of love (with the disclaimer that it's been over a decade since I saw the latter). Writer-director Sean Baker doesn't shy away from depicting poverty, prejudice and violence — let that serve as a content warning! — but he intermixes them with wry humor, empathy and an eye for the way affection blooms in unexpected places. The two leads have an infectious energy and a perfect odd-couple friendship: Sin-Dee talks a mile a minute and is constantly threatening to start some explosive drama, while Alexandra tries to talk her down, but can't help tagging along to help put out the inevitable conflagration. And what a conflagration it is! Seven people coming together in a donut shop one night to have two simultaneous overlapping fights in two different languages. In a lesser film, this scene might have been confusing, but here we know just enough about each character to understand where every one of them is coming from, even when their behavior is, shall we say, less than admirable. It's a truly virtuosic scene to cap off what was already an impressive movie. Given the rather bleak landscape of trans cinema, it's frankly amazing to me that a cis straight white man made a movie this powerful about these characters — though much of that is because he had the good sense to give his lead actresses, Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, significant input on the script and storyline.

Tangerine was shot entirely on iPhones, and not the new ones with the fancy multiple cameras. It was also shot mostly during the magic hour, in a part of LA where everything from donut shop signs to wacky waving inflatable arm-flailing tube men are already bright yellow. This combination means that the movie somehow comes out looking beautiful and ugly at the same time — which is not a bad description of the story, either.

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