The opening credits of Tangerine — curly script on a pink paper backdrop — suggest an old-fashioned romantic screwball comedy. Although the film is ultra-modern in its themes and techniques, that is exactly what we get.
Tangerine is a hilarious, frantically-paced day in the life of two black trans women who work as prostitutes in West Hollywood, Los Angeles.
It manages to be both laugh out loud funny and extremely poignant as it follows the interactions between these women, their pimp, the men who pay for sex, and other neighbourhood characters.
On Christmas Eve, just released from a short jail term, Sin-Dee Rella hears from her best friend Alexandra that her boyfriend and pimp Chester has been cheating on her with a “white fish” — a white female-born woman — called Dinah. Enraged, Sin-Dee resolves to confront Dinah and get some answers from Chester.
The rapport between the lead actors — and real life best friends — Kitana Kiki Rodriguez (Sin-Dee) and Mya Taylor (Alexandra) is the heart of the film.
From the moment she sets out on the hunt for Dinah, Sin-Dee is constantly on the move. There are very few static scenes in the film. These characters’ lives take place on the streets; they meet in Donut Time, wash at the launderette, ride buses and jump trains, and they walk and walk and walk.
When they need information they go to the queue at the local food bank or seek out the dealer whose office is a Chinese takeaway.
Meanwhile, Armenian taxi driver Razmik wearily transports passengers around the area, putting up with ungrateful drunks, tourists and various oddballs. The film carefully builds up our sympathy with him before revealing more about how his life intersects with Sin-Dee’s and Alexandra’s.
The film was shot entirely using iPhones with various add-ons. This was initially a financial decision, freeing up funds for extras and locations, but it also gave the filmmakers the freedom to follow Sin-Dee and Alexandra on their travels fairly unobtrusively. This produces a sense of movement and naturalism as people go about their business often unaware a film is being shot around them.
The beautiful golden California sunlight saturates the scruffy boulevards, car parks and takeaways they inhabit. The rare moments of stillness have all the more power for their contrast with the hectic pace.
Though these streets may be near those trod by Julia Roberts’s character in Pretty Woman 25 years ago, Tangerine is in a completely different class. Pretty Woman somehow managed to both romanticise and insult prostitutes, while perpetuating the idea that the solution to the dangers of sex work is to be swept up (or in fact, bought) by a rich man and given a credit card to buy designer clothes.
Tangerine instead paints a picture of people caught up in distorted relationships and precarious situations as a result of the oppression they face because of their gender, sexuality, race and poverty.
But it also shows powerfully how those same people can pull together and help each other out when drama threatens to engulf them.