A Walk on the Wild Side

Sundance fave Tangerine is loud and proud


After watching Tangerine, one might not think, "Well, that was a story about L.A." Though the city explodes and dances throughout the film, the lasting impression is more like a brutal bedtime story. Prostitution blows, but it's better with friends.

Sean Baker, who directed and co-wrote Tangerine, wanted to make a movie about Los Angeles' Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue. The infamous L.A. intersection is just blocks from Baker's home, and the filmmaker always wondered why there weren't more stories revolving around the unofficial red light district/corner. "First and foremost, Tangerine was an L.A. story, but the next step then was finding the personal story in that microcosm," says Baker.

The story that eventually unfolded is the tale of two best friends and sex workers, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), who spend Christmas Eve searching for Sin-Dee's cheating boyfriend. But the meat and bones of the plot didn't exist until Baker and co-writer, Chris Bergoch, met Taylor at the LGBT Center in L.A. "The moment we met Mya, we knew we'd met our collaborator," says Baker. "Together we discovered this story."

Though Baker isn't willing to call Tangerine groundbreaking, this 2015 Sundance favorite delves into a story rarely seen in Hollywood. The film stars two transgender women of color played by – get this – trans women of color. Baker is adamant that he wouldn't have had it any other way. "I'm always shocked when Hollywood has cis performers play trans roles. But there's a lack of roles for minorities, so why not fill the few roles we do have with the correct actors? I understand why people were upset with Dallas Buyers Club casting Jared Leto. We all need to be more conscious about diversity." And since Baker himself is a self-proclaimed straight, white, cisgender man, he relied heavily on Taylor's input.

When the budding actress officially signed on to work with Baker and Bergoch, she decided to put her trust in them, but under two conditions. "She asked me to promise her that we'd be totally real – that we would show what these girls put up with every day. And secondly, to be funny as hell. She told me, 'I want to laugh the whole way through.' That night, after we talked, I realized what she was asking me. We made a movie these girls can be entertained by." However, some of the film's humor might be lost on – or straight-up uncomfortable for – those unaccustomed to Alexandra and Sin-Dee's life(style), because, with Tangerine, you're either laughing with them or not laughing at all.

But, if the casting wasn't enough of a reason to take note of this offbeat comedy, Tangerine is also one of the first films to be shot on an iPhone 5s, and it does not disappoint. The cinematography is not only easy on the eyes, but evocates a blissed-out feel. Yet, Baker admits that the iPhone-filming stemmed from a "very low budget. We explored other options, but with this kind of ensemble piece and such a big soundtrack, this really was our only option."

Overall, Tangerine manages to tell a story that could easily feel drama-dark and depressing in another filmmaker's hand, with the likelihood of victimizing both trans women of color and sex workers. This movie, however, is not looking for your pity. "I'm not a fan of 'plight of' stories," says Baker, who spent nearly a year putting this film together. His final goal was to tell an entertaining story that would get audiences invested in the Sin-Dees and Alexandras of the world. "A lot of trans women of color are forced to resort to sex work. I want the audience to empathize enough to want to learn more."

Tangerine opens Friday, July 24, at the Alamo South Lamar and Violet Crown Cinema. See Film Listings for showtimes and review.

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Tangerine, Sean Baker, Mya Taylor, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Sundance Film Festival, iPhone 5s

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