There are two kinds of independent films – those that keep to the pre-determined structure of a film, which is the most popular – think of the nihilistic dialogue, the quirky characters and the offbeat humor. Then you get the independent films that try to revolutionize independent cinema altogether. Tangerine fits into the latter category, and is a truly unique film. I say that about several films, but I mean it every time, and Tangerine is one that is undeniably unique in both its approach to the story, and how the story is made.
In short, Tangerine is an absurd story. It is about two transgender women, one of whom, Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) has just been released from prison. When Sin-dee’s best friend, Alexandra (Mya Taylor) tells her that Sin-Dee’s boyfriend has fallen in love with another woman. As a response to this revelation, Sin-Dee goes on a rampage to find the woman her boyfriend has fallen in love with, and to get revenge on her boyfriend altogether. I am well aware that this film sounds absolutely trashy – the story is ripped straight of the the Real Housewives franchise, there is very little doubt about that. However, it actually transcends this story that is ripe for The Jerry Springer Show and delivers a surprisingly funny and strangely touching story about friendship, and more importantly, social issues that plague our society.
The central success of Tangerine lies in the three lead performances. Kitana Kiki Rodriguez is wonderfully bitter as Sin-Dee Rella, throwing snark and ensuring that the hard lessons she learned in prison weren’t put to waste. Mya Taylor is clearly the best in the film, giving a wonderfully hilarious and very likable performance as the warm and caring Alexandra. Karren Karagulian serves a great juxtaposition to the other two leads, playing a lonely cab driver looking for a companion. The three performers have wonderful chemistry with each other, and play off each other very well. The director of the film, Sean Baker, does a remarkable job of casting such obscure and unknown actors in such big roles. It speaks to the nature of casting unknown actors in roles such as this – you are capable of discovering new, raw talents, which is a process that the use of big-name stars has largely prevented, but there are always those independent filmmakers who sees themselves as saints of cinema, with their primary goal being to shine a spotlight on unknown actors.
This film might be very funny, but it has a very dark core. This film may tell a wonderfully strange story about two colorful characters going on an adventure of sorts. However, it is centered around the lowest level of society, and concerns those that have to survive by any means necessary, and through immoral and demeaning acts, our characters are able to satisfy their instincts to survive. It is a heartwrenching portrayal of poverty and living on the brink of poverty, and very often well-within the confines of poverty itself. These characters perform some terrible acts, but it is more heartbreaking than despicable, because they are simply doing it to ensure that they aren’t out on the street for another night. Many films portray the poor of the urban areas as immoral, one-sided criminals, while this film shows them in a slightly different light – Baker never once implies that what these characters do is right, but rather that what they do is necessary for their own survival. There are many hilarious moments in this film, but there are also several very touching and heartbreaking moments, and this film is as entertaining as it is important.
I mentioned how this film is unique. What makes it so unique, and I am sure you will notice this while watching it is that it looks very unique. It is filmed in a very unconventional way, using two iPhones. It is a revolutionary and almost heroic approach to filmmaking, and while it was filmed using iPhones, it never feels like a cheap film. It feels like a guerilla film, which is a sub-sub-genre of independent film that isn’t made anymore. If this film shows anything, it is that it makes the bold statement that anyone can make a film, as long as you have the story and the passion – and even a film made using an iPhone can still be very compelling.
Tangerine is a fantastic film. It is certainly unique in many regards, and the performances throughout are natural and wonderful to watch. The film itself is equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking, and while it may not be a film that everyone will enjoy, it is certainly a breath of fresh air, and reaffirms my belief that independent cinema is far from being unoriginal, and as long as people like Sean Baker make films like Tangerine, I will always have a great respect for independent cinema.