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Tangerine (2015) Review

Updated on August 3, 2015

The fact that this film breaks two huge boundaries in the film industry makes it a must-see. The fact that it’s thin on story and character development undermines its inherent power. Yes, little known director Sean Baker—who has worked on only a handful of small films and TV episodes since 2000—takes his chance to work with indie darlings Jay and Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair, Togetherness) on a groundbreaking film, and kind of wastes it.

Tangerine tells the L.A. story of transvestite prostitutes Sin-Dee (Kitana Rodriguez) and her friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor). Sin-Dee has just gotten out of a short stint in jail only to discover that her pimp boyfriend has been cheating on her. And she is pissed. That’s about it. We follow Sin-Dee’s rampage and Alexandra’s attempts to both reign in her friend and get a musical reputation off the ground. We also follow an Armenian cab-driver who happens to be one of their good customers. The plot is purely based in characters’ relationships, and it flows in a somewhat heightened naturalistic manner until the climax when all these characters’ threads come together. Of course, this consciously heightened style puts it in not-quite-docu-drama—i.e. not completely naturalistic—territory, and so we expect a little more effort to go into the writing, into resolving the conflicts that the writers have created. Unfortunately, there is little, if any, real resolve as we witness characters fall back into their patterns, and big issues just kind of blow away into the wind. In other words, it fails to answer the question of why it was created.

Perhaps that’s because it was a stunt; at least, that’s sort of how it was marketed. I stated above that it broke ground in two ways: the first was in its choice of underrepresented main characters (played by actual transvestite non-actors for greater authenticity!); the second was its exclusive use of the iPhone 5 as the camera. With nothing but an iPhone, a 1.33x Anamorphic Adapter by Moondog Labs, an app called FiLMiC Pro, and a Steadicam Smoothee, Baker and co-Director of Photography Radium Cheung commandeered a revolutionary film shoot.

(No Film School discusses how the shoot was executed here: http://nofilmschool.com/2015/07/tangerine-sundance-iphone-5s-sean-baker-radium-cheung-interview)

The result is a boon for indie filmmakers everywhere who don’t have the money to throw down for a camera. While phones were certainly not the only equipment used on the production—the budget for sound equipment, editing software, etc. remained high—it still demonstrates the possibilities for hungry artists who are highly determined, highly focused go-getters.

The trick, it seems, is to treat it as much like a big budget film as possible, to allow the story to be taken as seriously as any other. And that’s where this film falls unfortunately flat—not just for these guys, but for the low-budget filmmakers and the marginalized demographic that this film represents. Because so many people will already be skeptical about a movie about a transvestite prostitute shot on an iPhone, it needs to be that much better to demonstrate its cultural worth to wide audiences. I know I want to see more ambitious projects like this showing on a bigger scale. But I also know that if this little effort is put into them, I won’t.

So my appreciation for the film is damaged. If you are curious and have some money to spend, and you want to support low-budget filmmaking and underrepresented characters, I recommend it. Just don’t expect the story to wow you. Because, as its fast pace, eclectic soundtrack, and pockets of humor like to remind you, it’s got plenty of style.

But, c'mon guys. Why no substance?

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