As the summer’s usual dinosaurs crash and lumber across the mass market—I don’t judge, I merely describe—while unobtrusive little creatures called “indie” and “foreign” skitter for nourishment in the cultural underbrush, I have to wonder: Would the characters in Sean Baker’s Tangerine choose to watch their own little neorealist movie, or would they rather see Jurassic World?
I know what I’m supposed to say: People from underrepresented communities—in this case, impoverished transgender sex workers of African and Latin background—long to see themselves on the screen. Maybe so; but just the number of syllables in that answer makes me wonder how far it’s true. Would Tangerine’s Sin-Dee and Alexandra really want to watch themselves scuffling bravely on the sidewalks of Los Angeles, or would they prefer to have movie avatars who wrangle velociraptors? It’s also standard to say that cinema is richer and more vital for incorporating characters such as those in Tangerine—but richer and more vital for whom? The usual art-house audience—or all the trans sex workers who get their film recommendations from The Nation?
Such questions have knocked around ever since the hero of Sullivan’s Travels went out to make films for the poor and disenfranchised, only to learn that his target audience wanted Disney cartoons. Now, like a chronic rash, the dilemma he faced becomes aggravated every summer, and there is no salve. I can only hope that Sin-Dee and Alexandra won’t be as bored as I was if they pop into Jurassic World. And if someone should entice them into Tangerine, or one of the summer’s other small movies, I hope they’ll find there’s fun to be had.
In Tangerine, the pleasures begin with an act of sharing. It’s Christmas Eve in Los Angeles—a time for good will toward men, including men who have become women and work the streets—and so it’s fitting that Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), just released from a month in jail, should set off the action by spending her last $2 on a doughnut to divide with Alexandra (Mya Taylor), the only friend who showed up to greet her. The two sit chatting on opposite sides of a booth in Donut Time, Sin-Dee with her fluffy blond Beyoncé wig and leopard-print blouse, Alexandra with her curtain of silky black hair and tank top stretched over recently enhanced breasts, while writer-director-cinematographer-editor Sean Baker shows them in alternation. It isn’t yet clear, though the reason will emerge, why he’s using such a rudimentary ping-pong editing scheme. What matters is that in each shot, a broad sweep of sidewalk and intersection is visible through the window, in surprisingly deep focus. The life of the streets, at a morning hour that’s a little early for these two, is already present in Tangerine; and the streets are where the action is headed, in fury, after Alexandra lets slip the information that Sin-Dee’s boyfriend (or pimp, some would say) has been unfaithful to her with one of his new girls.