In the year after she wrapped production on Sean Baker’s electric, riotous romp of a film, Tangerine, lead actor Mya Taylor couldn’t find a job.
“I applied for 186 jobs in one month, and I did 26 interviews,” said newcomer Taylor, who plays the transgender sex worker Alexandra with humor, grace, and enviable ease, in an interview with BuzzFeed News. And her skills are multiple — Baker added in the same interview that “besides being a wonderful thespian, [Taylor] knows cars inside and out. But she couldn’t get one job at a car dealership.”
As a transgender woman of color, Taylor faces the same employment discrimination her character, Alexandra, does: Trans people experience unemployment at twice the rate of the general population; trans people of color experience as much as four times the rate. With so many oppressive forces disenfranchising trans people who sit at the intersection of multiple marginalized communities, the visibility at work in Tangerine — which hits theaters today — is all the more extraordinary.
And it also happens to be a really, really, really great film.
Tangerine, at its heart, is the story of two friends: Taylor’s Alexandra and Sin-Dee Rella — played with fiery bravado by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez — who’s released from jail the day before Christmas. “Merry Christmas, bitch” — the kickoff line to beat all kickoff lines — rockets us into a single day and night in the world of these two women in hot pursuit of the “fish” (cisgender woman) rumored to have slept with Sin-Dee’s boyfriend/pimp Chester (James Ransone) while Sin-Dee was still behind bars. Orbiting the intersection of Highland Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard, the women tear through their squalid pocket of L.A. with goals of retribution. It’s also there that we meet Razmik (Karren Karagulian), an Armenian cabdriver who solicits fellatio in a car wash before going home for Christmas Eve dinner with his wife and in-laws — he’s a surprisingly sympathetic character, especially when set up against the other johns upon whom Alexandra and Sin-Dee rely (and with whom they get into the occasional brawl). We meet Alexandra and Sin-Dee’s fellow sex workers; we meet tricked-out meth-heads; we meet Chester, finally, and his fish.
It’s an impressive ensemble cast, particularly so with a group of up-and-coming all-stars. Baker and his co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch knew that, as two white men with little firsthand knowledge of the environment they’d be depicting, they had to do their research. Baker first met Taylor at the LGBT Center in Hollywood, and she expressed interest in sharing her world with them. “When someone’s trying to get information out of me, about certain parts of my life, what I’ve experienced, I open completely up,” Taylor said.
Baker and Bergoch faithfully took her direction in shaping dialogue for the script and finding her co-star. Through Taylor, Baker met his second lead actor, Rodriguez. He saw then that their chemistry would be palpable. And onscreen, they don’t disappoint.
When Sin-Dee and Alexandra’s night ends with a run-of-the-mill outburst of transmisogyny from a car full of men, the sprawl of L.A. recedes from prominence. These two women, sitting side by side outside a laundromat, don’t have their pimps or johns or boyfriends to protect them. All they have is each other. It’s sweet and sad, a moment that will break hearts just as quickly as it will lift them up again. The film is worth seeing for that scene alone — but it’s far from the only one.
How’d Baker pull it all off? “We decided to put more of the budget on the screen,” he said — with savings gleaned from filming with an iPhone.
By power of an anamorphic adapter from Moondog Labs, and with inspiration from a Vimeo channel showcasing iPhone experiments, Baker realized that making a feature film with a smartphone might actually work. When he was still on the fence, Baker said executive producer Mark Duplass helped push him: “Yeah, it’s punk rock. Let’s do it.”
And it did work. Sweeping walk-and-talk shots of the actors — many of which Baker filmed with an iPhone in one hand while he steered a bike with the other — are brimming with a frenetic liveliness that far from betray the low-cost production. Color effects applied in postproduction have steeped the images in radioactive, headachy hues: the oranges, yellows and pinks of sunbaked West Hollywood.
Tangerine’s aesthetic feats are matched, more quietly, with the intimate connections achieved between its characters. It is a hair-pulling and trash-talking comedy, with winky elements of classic farce. But the wild dash for vengeance — which brings these two friends together, pits them against one another, and brings them back together again — points to something bigger. Something sadder.
“You have to ask yourself: What were Alexandra and Sin-Dee doing on those streets?” Taylor said. “The thing is, a lot of gay and trans people are pushed away from their families and turn out to the streets. It happened to me, too.”
“There’s this complex web of discrimination and oppression,” Baker added. “We’re living at a time where visibility for trans women has never been to this degree, and that’s a wonderful thing, but violence against trans women increased by 13% [in 2014]. We’re up to our ninth murder of a trans person in the U.S. this year. There’s been so much positive change, but we’re still in the very beginning.”
Taylor has already landed another gig; she plays the renowned transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson in Happy Birthday, Marsha!, which is currently in postproduction. Baker hopes that we’re on the verge of an important shift in the industry — that trans stories will start getting told in greater number at last.