For some folks, the occasional vicarious look at people who “live on the margins” is enough. You know the type — they’re fascinated by reality-show train wrecks and Cops reruns and what have you, but really, they’re pretty happy to leave all that behind after 30 minutes or an hour and take the kids to soccer practice or go to the PTA meeting or do whatever it is that suburbanites generally do. Sounds kinda dull to me, but hey, if it’s working for them, more power to ’em.
Some of us, however, are wired a bit differently. “On the margins” won’t do for us when stories about people who live well beyond them are at our disposal. We dig flicks like Harmony Korine’s Gummo and Buddy Giovinazzo’s Combat Shock and Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy. We know that there are millions of people who are forced to eke out a hardscrabble existence in any way that they can so that the less-than-one-percent can continue to live high off the hog and the dwindling upper-middle and straight-up-middle classes can maintain the illusion that they “have it good.” We’re hip to the fact that their are plenty of people well beyond the reach of the swiftly-fading “American dream,” and we think that no-frills looks at their lives are worthwhile not for the sake of cheap curiosity, but because that’s the real America right there, regardless of what the media and our purported “leaders” in the governmental and business worlds (is there really any difference between the two anymore?) may want us to believe. And ya know what? Let’s not kid ourselves. If the rich keep having their way — and there’s no reason to believe that they won’t — life on the streets, or even in the gutters, is something we’d all better get used to.
For folks inclined toward such hard slaps of reality, there are few films I can recommend more strongly than co-writer (along with Chris Bergoch)/director Sean Baker’s 2015 Sundance Film Festival sensation Tangerine, a painfully honest, authentic, and frankly necessary look at life on arguably the most notorious urban thoroughfare of all , Hollywood Boulevard, that was picked up for distribution by the Duplass brothers’ burgeoning micro-budget empire and is now available on Netflix (as well as on Blu-ray and DVD, but not having seen it on either of those formats myself I can’t comment on any specifics in relation to those physical-storage releases).
Lets’s get one thing straight right off the bat, though — Tangerine is not a documentary, but for all intents and purposes it sure plays out like one. Transgender prostitute Sin-Dee Rella (played by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) has just hit the streets again after spending 28 days locked up on a bullshit possession charge that she took to protect her pimp/old man, Chester (James Ransone), but when she hears that he was stepping out on her while she was in stir with a new girl who actually is, well, a girl, she’s understandably livid and out to bust some heads. It takes some doing, but her and her best friend Alexandra/Alexander (Mya Taylor) do eventually find the young lady in question, Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan) after tearing up one hourly-rate motel room, crack den, charity food line, and all-night donut shop after another. And then they all find Chester. It’s Christmas Eve, but there’s gonna be more fireworks than the 4th of July.
Running concurrently with this main storyline is the pathetic-but-gripping saga of Razmik (Karren Karagulian), an Armenian immigrant cab driver who’s forced to take an endless parade of pain-in-the-ass fares (the great Clu Gulager being one of them) in order to finance the desperate need for she-male cock that he, of course, keeps well-hidden from his family. Or so he thinks.
Everyone’s paths are going to violently intersect before the night is through and no one’s going to get a happy ending, but that doesn’t mean Tangerine is all gloom and doom. Far from it, in fact, as both astonishing leads, Rodriguez and Taylor, imbue their characters with a wickedly unapologetic sense of humor throughout. Yeah, they work the streets. Yeah, they smoke crack. Yeah, they hate having penises. Yeah, they’re broke and don’t know where they’re gonna sleep on any given night. You got a problem with that? Because I’m telling you, they sure as hell don’t. One unexpected plot twist near the end of the film definitely leads to them having a problem with each other, though, and watching how all that plays out and is worked through leads to one of the most unconventionally touching moments you’ll see in any film this year. Yes, on top of everything else, Tangerine packs a bit of an emotional wallop, as well.
The supporting players in this flick are uniformly excellent as well, especially Ransone as the sorry-ass, not-worth-the-trouble-and-everyone-knows-it Chester and Karagulian as the palpably conflicted Razmik. Baker is to be commended for getting such outstanding performances from his largely unprofessional cast, to be sure, but above all he earns kudos for eschewing the “freak show” or “sob story” approaches that lesser directors would take with this material and instead treating these people for whom clawing their way their way to “rock bottom” would be a step up with the respect and dignity they deserve. The picture he paints is by turns ugly and beautiful, as things tend to be I suppose when one’s survival is far from guaranteed, but hidden within it all is a quietly powerful message — selling your body, and maybe even your conscience, doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to sell your dignity, as well.
Tangerine (and no, I still can’t figure out what the heck the title means, either) certainly isn’t for everyone, but for those of us who proudly wear any one or more of the labels “freak,” “reject,” “degenerate,” ‘loser,” “outcast,” “creep,” or “weirdo,” well — this is a movie worth standing up and cheering at the top of our lungs over.