The moment I stopped liking Sean S. Baker’s Tangerine (2015) and started loving it came about two-thirds of the way through. Fresh-out-of-prison transgender prostitute Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) crams herself into a club bathroom with Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), another prostitute she has dragged halfway across Los Angeles after learning she slept with her pimp/boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) while in the slammer. Instead of taking Dinah directly to the donut shop where Chester runs his “business,” Sin-Dee detours them to a club to listen to her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) sing Christmas songs. During this moment of calm, Sin-Dee delicately, oh so delicately, begins to tend Dinah’s battered, bruised face, hair, and make-up. I’m not naive enough to suggest that the scene denotes a common bond between two very different prostitutes—the one black and trans, the other white and cis—that transcends such petty things as relationship drama. I’m simply left with a scene of heart-rending humanity the likes of which I rarely see in American films outside the work of Ramin Bahrani and Wes Anderson.
Of course, I could go on about the various reasons Tangerine has made a splash in film circles: the fact that it was shot entirely on smartphones; its use of amateur black transgender actresses in an era when transgender roles are played almost entirely by straight white cis men; its focus on a LGBTQ+ subculture that the rest of the entertainment industry seems dead set on ignoring. But I’m more interested in the film’s humanity; its fully realized, tragically flawed, yet extraordinarily resilient characters loving, hating, screaming, whispering, fighting, and forgiving their way through the backstreets of Los Angeles. Let me say this now: all three of the principle actresses deserve Oscar nods. Watch Rodriguez’ manic energy as she struts the streets, her dyed hair as yellow as the California skyline, while on the warpath of spurned lovers. Watch how O’Hagan disappears into her physically desiccated role with all the self-destructive authenticity of Charlize Theron in Patty Jenkins’ Monster (2003).
And Taylor…she almost steals the whole damn movie with the scene where she sings “Toyland,” baring her entire soul to a nearly empty club. You know what it reminded me of? The “Llorando” scene from David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001). Not just because they both feature an actress singing in front of a red curtain, but because they both sent sharp chills up and down my spine with almost nothing more than a voice and a face.