Tangerine is a raucous comedy about people leading marginalized lives of economic desperation. It's one hell of a difficult balance to strike, to be funny without glossing over the rough straits of its main characters, two trans women sex workers who ply their trade on a scruffy stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles. But Tangerine pulls it off with warmth and humanity, and handles sex in a way that is particularly remarkable — frank but not uncomplicated, a business negotiation but also an element of an ecosystem that's small and populated with regulars.
Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) have personal lives — the movie's fueled by how Sin-Dee, fresh off a monthlong jail stint, deals with the news that her pimp fiancé Chester (James Ransone) has cheated on her with a "fish," a cis gal, while Sin-Dee was away. But the sex that's shown on screen is only transactional. It takes place in cars or cheap motels or, in the most memorable instance, a car wash, where in a long take, one of Alexandra's regulars, a taxi driver named Razmik (Karren Karagulian), goes down on her while the soapy brushes swirl on the windshield.
It's a sequence that's intimate and almost goofily erotic — all those highly symbolic suds splashes! — but one that also highlights the unfeigned relief Alexandra feels in seeing a familiar face after a tough few hours, even if that face belongs to a john with whom she matter-of-factly exchanges sex for cash. "I wasn't sure the ultimate effect it would have," Tangerine director Sean Baker said of the scene during an interview with BuzzFeed News in New York. "People seem to be moved by its intimacy."
He credits the scene's unexpected undercurrent of affection to the workshopping process with Taylor and Karagulian. "When Mya said, 'I'm so happy to see you — this is becoming our regular spot,' I thought, Wow, there's definitely something here," Baker said. "When it got to the point where she was comforted to see him after the day that she's been having, that fascinated me I thought, My gosh, to get to the point where she finds comfort in one of her clients, it makes it even more tragic for me."
Like the rest of the movie, the details of the car wash scene were drawn from stories Baker and his co-writer Chris Bergoch were told while they spoke with locals on the street for research and at the LGBT center where they first met Taylor. "Every little vignette came from something we'd heard, whether it was the interaction with the police officers or the hate crime," Baker noted.
Learning that car washes were a locale to which working girls sometimes took johns also conveniently coincided with Baker's longtime wish to film a scene in one. "I've always wanted to do that," Baker said. "I just didn't know how it would play out. I might make a gangster film one day and somebody's going to get shot in one! Twenty years later, it's a sex scene." He's coy about whether the car wash actually knew they were shooting part of a movie, laughing "that's more of a producer question," but admits that the fact that Tangerine was shot entirely and beautifully on an iPhone 5 made low-key filming easier in general. "Being able to capture real street life was easier," Baker noted.
Tangerine showcases how hard won private spaces are for someone largely living outside, in public — the car wash creating a temporary bubble in which the audience is also enclosed, or the laundromat to which Alexandra and Sin-Dee retreat. "There are those little hubs," Baker said. "Those little isolated places."