Gritty ‘Tangerine’ on My ‘Best of 2015’ List

Darleen Ortega | 1/5/2016, 12:52 p.m.
Made on a tiny budget of $100,000, "Tangerine" is the quintessentially Hollywood picture.
Kitana Kiki Rodriguez (right) in "Tangerine." Magnolia Pictures

2015 has been lauded as a big year for films and television involving LGBTQ subjects -- with lots of awards buzz particularly for "The Danish Girl" (which I wrote about last week) and "Carol," the extremely stylish 1950s lesbian love story starring the very fine Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. While I found much to admire in both those heavily art-directed, big-budget films ($15 million and $11 million, respectively), the queer story that will end up on my list of the 10 best films of the year is the far grittier "Tangerine," which had its theatrical release in July and is now available on DVD and streaming.

Made on a tiny budget of $100,000, "Tangerine" is the quintessentially Hollywood picture. Shot entirely on iPhone 5s smartphones equipped with a special app and lens equipment, the story lives in a part of Hollywood just a short distance from the land of dreams we typically think of, but rarely featured or accorded such dignity and specificity, a world of sex workers and immigrants and others at the margins. Decisions necessitated by budget limitations required of the filmmakers ingenuity, flexibility, and humor very in-keeping with the qualities required of the two trans women of color at the center of this story, and the result is a bracingly realistic look at a community too few of us even begin to understand.

Director Sean Baker – a self-described cisgender white male -- makes social realist films about outsiders, and if this picture is any indication, he approaches those stories in the right way. Here, he set out to make a film about the unofficial red-light district of Hollywood, which was near his home but not part of his experience, and began by walking those very streets with his co-writer, Chris Bergoch, in search of a collaborator who could guide them into the world those streets contained. The two attracted mostly indifference and suspicion until they encountered Mya Taylor at the local LGBTQ center. She captured their attention, was intrigued by their ideas for the film, and eventually introduced them to her friend Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. Baker enlisted the two trans women, both already interested in breaking into the entertainment business but having had little opportunity to show what they could do, to star in the film. Taylor and Rodriguez educated the filmmakers about "the block" and influenced the shape the story took.

Give a listen to a terrific interview that Taylor and Baker did with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air after you watch the film. Among other things, Taylor talks frankly about her own life as a former sex worker -- the oppression that drove her to that life and the unthinkable challenges of living it. She bravely participated in the film during her own transition, and it's clear that her lived experiences grounded this fictional story in ways we don't often see reflected on the big screen. I can't imagine that many people who have the privilege necessary to make a film even begin to realize and respond to their own ignorance as Baker did, which explains why we so rarely see films that even attempt stories as visceral as this one, or that succeed in telling them so truthfully.