VOD film review: Tangerine
Simon Kinnear | On 17, Mar 2016Reading time: 3 mins
Director: Sean Baker
Cast: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karren Karagulian
Watch Tangerine online in the UK: All 4 / BFI Player / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
The history of independent film is intertwined with the history of technological advancement, from the French New Wave’s pioneering use of portable 16mm cameras to those early experiments in digital video, such as Festen or The Blair Witch Project. These days – somewhat inevitably, given their vital role in YouTube culture – the camera of choice is the smartphone and Tangerine has become famous for being shot on iPhones.
In theory, that makes it perfect VOD viewing, except that nobody has told Sean Baker to think small. Using a digital anamorphic lens to achieve a Widescreen frame and rigging his smartphones to a Steadicam, Baker glides down Hollywood’s boulevards with remarkable kineticism. As is so often the case, being an early adopter for lightweight equipment means stripping back to essentials. This is just actors, environment and the camera, to achieve a roving energy that makes more polished films look cumbersome.
Yes, it’s imperfect: the light is so overexposed that the lighting becomes garishly over-saturated, highlighting the unreality of the Los Angeles skies that give the film its name. Yet that look, at once in-your-face but also fragile, becomes a visual motif that underscores Baker’s study of life on the edge.
This is low-rent America, a place where transgender hookers and blue-collar immigrants gather to make a buck. Most films would treat this as sordid or depressing, but Baker’s intimate shooting style is backed by a real warmth. Real locations look strange and beautiful, a Wizard of Oz-fantasia in which the marginalised rule the streets. In one scene, a naïve female prostitute is berated for plying her trade in the wrong part of town: “No pussies here.”
And, sure enough, the characters have a toughness to hide whatever sadness has brought them to this world. Main character Sin-Dee (Rodriguez) has a flinty exterior that drives a quest to capture the ho who’s been shagging her pimp and lover – but somehow, over the course of the day, a recognition of a shared camaraderie proves stronger than petty squabbles.
In many ways, this is the anti-Do The Right Thing, ethnically diverse and sexually fluid, where Armenian taxi drivers, Asian donut store owners, white pimps and black whores co-existing with a rueful humour and a tacit solidarity. Even the cops are more likely to turn a blind eye. Characters like cabbie Razmik (Karagulian) become associate members of the clique; even though he’s a John, he’s one who prefers to give rather than receive, underlining the film’s casually topsy-turvy attitude to societal norms.
The story’s layering of subcultures says interesting things about America, but never in a didactic way. While Baker acknowledges the spectre of doubt and despair that hover over the inhabitants of this world, this is foremost a comedy, with something of the insouciance of early Kevin Smith (especially in the likeable performances of non-professionals Rodriguez and Taylor) and the caustic, queer wit of John Waters. Never mind how it was shot: Tangerine is consistently smart and never phoney.
Tangerine is available on All 4 until 9th September 2020.