Directed by Sean Baker for a budget of $100,000, Tangerine (2015) tells the story of Sin-Dee, a trans woman sex worker. Freshly sprung from the local jail, Sin-Dee looks to reunite with her pimp, Chester. Chester is nowhere to be found. Instead, Sin-Dee is greeted by another sex worker (also trans), Alexandra. At the local donut shop, Donut Time, Alex tells Sin-Dee the reason for Chester’s absence: he’s been seeing another woman, a cisgender one (“fish”)! Enraged, Sin-Dee sets off to find out the truth.
I confess, if not for the gender variety the premise would be somewhat rote. Here, however, it isn’t tacked on or cheap. Much of the drama, comedy and action revolve around the fact that Sin-Dee is trans, and that many of the other characters are not. The contrast is vital. Sin-Dee is the heroine, but a tragic one: she’s a bit too feisty to merit the title “whore with a heart of gold,” and a bit too criminal to be seen as innocent or pure. All the same, the drama works; she merits pity without feeling preachy or demonic. Neither scapegoat nor stock, she simply is what she is. Here, we’re given a rare opportunity: to have a trans woman in a starring role that doesn’t feel pigeonholed.
Shot in L.A. at Christmas time, the movie follows the everyday things we might not notice. There’s no snow. Johns sit in their cars, fed up with their wives. One is an Armenian cabbie called Razmik. When he picks up a reasonably attractive woman working the streets, he propositions her, offering to administer oral sex. However, when she pulls down her panties and shows him the goods, he seems confused. The feeling is mutual:
“What is this?” he asks, dumbfounded.
“…My pussy?” she replies, equally stumped. What’s his deal? she wonders. As do I.
The scene is meant to puzzle. The cabbie doesn’t wax soliloquy on his hidden lust for trans women. He doesn’t shout vituperatively. She exits, clearly pissed; he drives off, muttering under his breath. Razmik’s scenes reflect his personality. They are quiet. He keeps his thoughts to himself. Sin-Dee does not.
The stage is shared between them throughout the movie. After Razmik turns away the sex worker, he bumps into Alex. His English is not perfect, but good enough to make his point. “Sin-Dee’s back on the block?” he asks. Alex tells him of an upcoming show she’s headlining, and that Sin-Dee will be there. We already know this; both women have been announcing it loudly in their conversations, and handing out flyers in the street. Though not the most expressive man, Razmik seems excited. After work, he goes home, and we learn he’s married with children(!). His very traditional Armenian family are in his dining room. The dinner table is laden, fenced by a string of old ladies, including his mother-in-law. They gossip, smoke and drink. Many cannot speak English; he refuses to speak Armenian. This will come to a boil, later. For now, the movie is merely setting the table.
While Razmik is at home, Sin-Dee searches for Chester. She is a poor-but-stubborn detective. After a few forceful conversations with the locals, she pieces together a name: Dinah(?). Not long after, she bursts into Dinah’s workplace, a flophouse with a skittish, chubby madame. Being trans, Sin-Dee is physically stronger than a natural woman (and some Johns, we learn, in an earlier scene). She forces her way inside, bellowing Dinah’s name. Dinah is understandably confused, can only holler as Sin-Dee drags her out into the street. Sin-Dee is bull-headed and strong-of-arm, but also quick to blame others. While angry with Chester, he is not around, so she takes out her frustrations on Dinah. Dinah is a rag-doll, but a mouthy one. Silence would be a virtue, in her case, but she taunts her assailant, instead. To some degree, her attitude is understandable; her attacker is, by all accounts, a total stranger.
The movie continues to juggle scenes between Sin-Dee and Dinah, Razmik, and Alex. While Sin-Dee takes Dinah to meet Chester, Razmik lies to his wife. He tells her he has “work,” that he might skip out on dinner (and sex with her) to see Sin-Dee at Alex’s late-night show. The mother-in-law questions him, and berates her feckless daughter. Alex, meanwhile, waits at the local bar, tapping her foot; if no one shows up, she can’t sing. There’s a constant sense of tension, of time counting down while disparate events lead up to an inexorable conclusion.
On the bus, Sin-Dee and Dinah bicker back and forth. Then Sin-Dee remembers Alex’s show and drags Dinah off the bus. Once they’re inside the club, the two women make for strange bedfellows, snorting blow in the one-stall bathroom. It’s trashy but real; these women aren’t sanitized, nor are they forced to act in a way that doesn’t feel believable, that they’re poor and from the street. The happenings are spontaneous, and, at times, incredibly entertaining. These ladies are paupers, but lead adventuresome lives, caught in a drama normally reserved for rote characters far more boring. What’s more, the movie succeeds in ways many other, more formulaic offerings do not. It’s economic and varied, but touching and funny amid all the hustle and bustle.
After the show, Sin-Dee, Dinah and Alex depart. Any objections are made on the run (“What did you do to her?” an incredulous Alex gasps, noting Dinah’s lack of shoes, and plentiful bruises; having missed the show, Razmik must bribe Sin-Dee’s competition with “burger and fries” money to learn her whereabouts). All roads lead to Rome; all sidewalks, in Tangerine, lead back around to Donut Time, where the fateful Chester sits on his “throne”: a plastic bench.
Chester has only been mentioned in conversations, up to this point. A white man in baggy shorts and a hoodie, he is scrawny and shifty. When Sin-Dee confronts him, he plays the fool (smarter than Dinah was). Sin-Dee lets him have it; they bicker. The clerk, an Asian woman Chester calls “Mama-san,” watches them from behind the counter, nonplussed. If they don’t shape up, she tells them, she’ll call the cops. This adds an element of tension, but also of humor. The ensuing dialogue is scattered and tumultuous, with more participants walking in from outside: Alex and Dinah, but soon, Razmik. The already-packed donut shop quickly becomes more crowded when Razmik’s mother-in-law shows up, having grown suspicious of her son-in-law and having demanded a co-worker take her to him. Eventually she calls her daughter and tells her the truth, that her son is in a donut shop soliciting sex from, in her eyes, a hooker, and one who isn’t considered a “real” woman!
This scene could have been ugly. Instead, it’s busy and hilarious. Every member of the conversation is of a different profession, ethnicity and gender. The sex workers Sin-Dee and Alex are African American trans-women; Dinah, another sex worker, is white; Mama-san, an Asian donut shop proprietor; Chester, a white pimp; Razmik, an Armenian cabby cheating on his wife; the mother-in-law and the wife, Armenian immigrants. Worse, each is on a different page, in terms of what is actually going on.
To call it bedlam would be unfair. The timing and composition of the entrants is deliberate and selective. Although hilarious, it deftly ties up the story’s many loose ends. One at a time, people enter, speak their peace, and sit down, suddenly tableaux. Others follow them inside, lost and confused, but also squabbling with those on the sidelines. The back-and-forth is generous and constant, but tiered. It doesn’t explode; people take breaks, though we anticipate something will happen. The dialogue happens—frantic, disparaging and heated. The director takes the inaction of spoken dialogue and turns a local donut shop into a stage play whose words tickle, sting and explode. A fistfight would cheapen the experience.
During the verbal melee, characters learn unpleasant truths. For example, we learn how Chester used Sin-Dee to avoid heavy jail time. That’s the street for you. There’s another twist, one that hits Sin-Dee (and us) far harder: Alex slept with Chester and lied to Sin-Dee about it! This whole ordeal could have been avoided had Alex only told the truth, up front. “I didn’t want to hurt you!” she pleads after Sin-Dee. Dinah sneers. To some extent, her slack jeers feel justified, given how poorly Sin-Dee treated her.
Everyone leaves much how you’d expect. Razmik and his wife go home with Mom; Chester and Dinah do some blow outside. Only Alex follows Sin-Dee into the cold, dark night. In this moment, Sin-Dee brushes off Alex, trying to pick up a John. For her trouble, the men in the car toss pee in her face, ruining her wig. In this gross, unhappy moment, Alex offers the other woman her wig. Sitting in a laundry mat in the middle of the night, they make amends; others—Razmik, Ramzik’s wife, and Dinah—are left to their fates, and life goes on. But the central conflict, the one between Sin-Dee and Alex, has been resolved, all without drawing attention to itself.
And so the tragic heroine, Sin-Dee falls blindly on her own sword, with a penitent Alex holding the handle. Dinah is locked out in the cold by her scared madame; Razmik spends Christmas alone; Chester carries on, more calculating than he appears. Is it chaos? No. The drama and comedy remain intact as something natural, but funneled through a quaint nexus: the corner donut shop. I found myself watching, captivated by these destitute persons and their dynamic, rich lives, unfolding organically in front of me. The music was excellent (another specimen of the L.A. streets) and the lingo felt legitimate. Everything felt real, from the people to the events to the locale. When so many others would have cheapened her to a caged animal, a curiosity to gawk at behind the Fourth Wall, Tangerine treats its flawed, spunky heroine like a real human being. Bravo!