It is Christmas Eve in Hollywood, a day in Tinseltown when everything is even more brightly showy than usual. It’s a town of glitz and dreams and fantasies, where stars soar higher than high and multitudes of others scramble below to make a living in those stars’ dusty grit. A few golden names will get a terrazzo or brass star on Hollywood Boulevard, an aspirational spot on the ground that is, perhaps ironically, open to be trod on by anyone in need of a sidewalk. And there is something of that sly irony in Sean Baker’s newest film, Tangerine, for Baker is a good deal more interested in those doing the treading on those stars, those who walk on and work in the streets, than in those who have their names emblazoned into them. And indeed, as the film opens – a shot of two pairs of hands clasping and exchanging a doughnut over a table at Donut Time, a place that couldn’t be farther from the showiness of the Walk of Fame – I am a good deal less curious about the stars whose names I might recognize than I am about to whom those hands on the table belong.
The hands are Sin-Dee’s (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra’s (Mya Taylor), two friends, two transgender sex workers, whose journey, set all in one day in the Los Angeles streets and in the day-to-day haunts of those who make a living on the streets, invites us to question what we know, or what we think we know, about Los Angeles and those who live in it. Is the city, and by extension its inhabitants, as one character in the film puts it, a “beautifully wrapped lie”?
The film is interested in wrappings and tinsel, labels and assertions, outsides and insides and in what the relationship is between a wrapped present – as it appears – and the thing within – as it is. One of the most absorbing things about the film is the level of detail we get of the L.A. streets, particularly the signs – street signs, building signs, store signs: “ Earthquake Supplies” reads one; “No Dogs, No Drug Dealers, No Weapons, No Loitering” reads another. And “Collateral is not always necessary” reads yet another, with rather dubious significance. It would be easy to say that these signs assert to us the “real” L.A., the L.A. stripped of illusion and romance, and the star sidewalk and tinsel is all fiction. With a dismissive wave we might say, it’s all show, and when the curtain goes down, we go back to our real lives, to the real, gritty signs that say who we are. But it is not so easy to distinguish between how a thing appears and what a thing is, how a person appears and who a person is; a wrapping might become a part of the self – or reveal the self – for some, while in others the wrapping might be separate from it. As the film immerses us in the lives of Sin-Dee and Alexandra as well as in the life of another person of the streets, an Armenian taxi driver, Razmik (Karren Karagulian), whose life intersects with theirs, it invites us to consider the curious line – if there is one – between what is presented – what is seen – and what is.
With the opening scene – Sin-Dee and Alexandra discussing estrogen treatments and the way, because “all men cheat” in L.A., their lives must be “all about [their] hustle” – we might assume that it is these two whose lives fit most neatly into the beautifully wrapped lie of the city in which they live. We also might assume, with our introduction to Razmik, that his is the life that is less about the tinsel and the hustle and more about apparently straightforward work; with him, we might assume, what we see is what we get. But if embedded in the word “hustle” itself are at least two meanings – “to work hard” and “to deceive,” then also embedded in the film are those two meanings, both distinct and overlapping, and we very quickly must reassess who it is who is hustling and what hustling actually means. Is it really the two sex worker friends who are selling what is not real and the taxi driver who is selling what it is?
There is, certainly, a connection between the two distinct parties, Sin-Dee and Alexandra and Razmik; all three are outliers in what might be generally considered traditional American culture and society. Sin-Dee and Alexandra work and live within a community which is not particularly well-understood nor embraced, and Razmik is an Armenian, from a culture that is not particularly well-understood either, speaking a language that is not considered an “American” one. But all three of these – outsiders in their own ways – seem to know the streets of L.A. better than anyone; it is more home to them, certainly, than it is to the tourists who visit Hollywood Boulevard. All three, then, are, by all appearances, are outsiders, but their lives and identities are more closely tied to the life of the streets than the identities of any of the stars who grace the sidewalks or of the tourists who gawk at those stars.
But Razmik’s outsider-insider complexity is further complicated – and separated from Sin-Dee’s and Alexandra’s – when we realize that he is, by all appearances, a “family man,” complete with a wife, daughter, and mother-in-law, a family who celebrates Christmas Eve together in what might be considered a traditional, if not fully typically, American way. They are, clearly, working hard to fit into what is considered “American.” But Razmik’s family man status is just that – an ascribed status, rather than something Razmik himself is fully comfortable embracing. Razmik’s relationship with Sin-Dee and Alexandra – and particularly, his attraction to Sin-Dee, which drives him out and away from his family at a key moment in the film, gives the lie to what he says he is or what he appears to be, even to his own family. In that sense, there is a great deal more honesty to the hustling of Sin-Dee and Alexandra, who do not pretend, for those who really know them and to those who ask their services, to be what they are not.
While the film narrative – overlaid with vibrant, pumping music and beautifully , intimately shot on an iPhone 5S – often reads like a madcap story, even verging into the hilariously farcical in a penultimate scene (and it would be a disservice to the film to neglect to say just how irreverently funny it is); while the editing has an often frenetic feel; and while the patter of dialogue, particularly between Alexandra and Sin-Dee and those they work with on the streets, is breathlessly witty and sharp, the questions the film poses about outsides and insides are deeply thoughtful and often moving, particularly when we see how the film asks us to consider the apparent mismatches between outer and inner affect and reflect relationships and human connections within those apparent mismatches. There is one quite poignant scene in which Sin-Dee, in a gesture of what seems like reconciliation with a rival, Dinah, applies make-up to Dinah’s face. There’s a tenderness in the gesture, and the application of make-up feels less like covering something up – making it out to be a lie – than it does a very human link between two people. In that moment, it’s about how the make-up functions to connect the two; there is no deceit, no hustle.
And ultimately, the film beautifully reveals the depth of the friendship that exists between Sin-Dee and Alexandra. We have been invited to question, throughout the narrative, just how real friendships, relationships, and marriages can be – between sex workers, between sex workers and customers, between husbands and wives, between sex workers and pimps – particularly when Tinseltown serves as a mocking background, a challenge to what’s real or deeply felt. But when, in a sort of reverse parallel scene to Sin-Dee’s application of make-up to Dinah, Sin-Dee and Alexandra share a moment in which a piece of what some might call tinsel is removed – a piece of the outer identity -, I cannot say, “A-ha, then! It has, in fact, all been a beautifully wrapped lie.” The film instead invites me to say, with another character who cheerfully responds to the assertion that the wrapping of L.A. is a lie: “Agree to disagree.” Where, in fact, is the lie with these two? I cannot see it anywhere. And I’m left with what the film offered me in the beginning – only now, it is something I understand more fully and care about more deeply – a shot of two human hands together, in a clasp of friendship.
Tangerine opens Friday, July 24 at SIFF Cinema Egyptian.