When Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez)—the pre-op transgender prostitute featured in Sean Baker’s Tangerine—stomps furiously over the Hollywood Walk of Fame, en route to a showdown with her boyfriend-slash-pimp, the subtext of the moment is hardly subtle. Baker’s farcical film, which takes place across the day and night of a white-hot LA Christmas Eve, has two primary subjects: Hollywood, and genitals. The idea being that the movies we watch lie about both topics far too often.
“Yeah, like a real bitch,” Sin-Dee’s friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) tells her about Dinah, who Chester—the aforementioned pimp—has started sleeping with. “With a vagina and everything.” Sin-Dee just got out after a month-long incarceration, and hearing that Chester has spent all that time with “fish” (cisgender women) sends her even further over the edge than the crack pipe she’ll be hitting later on. She sets out, between tricks, to find that “real bitch,” planning to catch Chester red-handed: She’s going to drop the woman’s beat-up body in front of him the moment he starts claiming fidelity, as coal for his Christmas.
So Sin-Dee sets off on her journey down Santa Monica Blvd., with a borrowed cigarette in one hand and the other clenched into a closed fist. Ask yourself: when was the last time you watched a movie and knew, from the film itself, what street the characters were on? There’s specificity to Baker’s film—regional specificity, lingual specificity, anatomical specificity. And much of the dialogue revolves around the way these various identities (trans or cis, straight or gay, black or white, worker or customer) negotiate with one another; first figuratively, and then literally: a prostitute prodding a trick to see how much she can make from the information he wants, or a shop owner threatening a 911 call so that Chester—whose pimping the woman abides without complaint—will keep his voice at a level that won’t disturb other customers. These are tiny textural details, but together they form an image the size of a tapestry.
One of those johns is Razmik (Karren Karagulian), an Armenian taxi driver—married to a cisgender woman—who often stops the meter so he can orally service Sin-Dee and her colleagues. (In one of the funniest scenes the movies have seen in years, he accidentally picks up a cisgender prostitute, and experiences something best described as “straight panic.”) Before Razmik’s path intersects with the film’s gaggle of sex workers, Baker edits in clips of his passengers: a young woman with dyed hair and a Hello Kitty phone case taking selfies, or two eye-nodding bar-hopping guys rolling their way to unconsciousness. In most films such cross-cutting—which continues, from Sin-Dee to Alexandra to Razmik, in circles—would be extraneous. But in Tangerine it’s integral detail. Like the negotiations everyone enters into so haphazardly, these sequences are ethnography as comedy.
Baker’s camera rushes through the streets behind Sin-Dee with the force of a homing missile. But his compositions also highlight places alongside people. Commercial plazas, food trucks, car washes, and even the occasional chain store make cameos. And what emerges is a document of the Hollywood that Hollywood declines to show us. Tangerine becomes a critique of surfaces themselves: The LA we know from movies and TV, revealed to be as false as the idea that anatomy dictates gender.
One of the last locations we end up at is Donut Time, which doubles as Chester’s office during his hours of operation. Everyone in the narrative—Sin-Dee, Chester, Alexandra, Dinah, Razmik, his family, and the shop owner, for starters—converges on the spot for a screaming match that has your eyes crossing in six different directions trying to follow it all. It’s a conflict befitting a screwball comedy. But Baker isn’t rejecting that Hollywood tradition—he’s reclaiming it. His comedy-of-remarriage contains the markers of life that the filmmaking industry exists to erase. Tangerine re-inserts them: the lower-class hang-outs, the mom-and-pop pizza places, the run-down taco stands, the penises, the vaginas. It takes Hollywood—the town and its products—and fucks it.
TANGERINE. RATED R. OPENS FRI 6.17. KENDALL SQUARE CINEMA, 355 BINNEY ST., CAMBRIDGE.