Little girl and boy land.
While you dwell within it.
You are ever happy there.
— “Toyland”, Victor Herbert
“Los Angeles is a beautifully wrapped lie.” So pronounces Ashken (Alla Tumanian), using her native Armenian, as she looks out at a snowless street on Christmas Eve. Her cab driver shakes his head. “Agree to disagree,” he says, “I’m learning English.” No doubt.
It’s near the end of Tangerine, Sean Baker and Radium Cheung’s raucous, gorgeous comedy of errors. Wanting to fit in but willing to resist, seeking truths but not believing them, the scrappers and schemers in this LA are caught up in their own sorts of American dreams. Struggling to survive, they’re limited by poverty but also loosed from proprieties. During the day and night the film covers, they get by on donuts and drugs and lies, conjuring bits of grace amid constant chaos. Famously shot on iPhones outfitted with anamorphic lens adapters and Steadicam rig, the film never stops moving, cutting from moment to moment, not quite framing an irresistible confusion of identity and desire.
At the center of this mess are best friends and transgender sex workers Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor): their stories start on the morning of the day Sin-Dee’s been released from jail, following a 28-day sentence for possession. The sky is sunny. At Donut Time, the tables are yellow, the light is bright, and the bit of truth Angela lets slip is harsh, if not precisely shocking. Sin-Dee’s boyfriend and pimp, Chester, has been sleeping with someone else in her absence, someone whose name begins with a D, someone who’s a white fish, that is, Caucasian and cisfemale.
Though she promises Alexandra “no drama”, Sin-Dee is instantly furious, wronged and vengeful. Storming out of Donut Time, she lands on a bench outside, traffic and tall buildings and buses all around her, the surfaces of LA brilliantly reflecting and shaping her options. She comes to a decision: the so-solemn Beethoven on the soundtrack giving way to BrainDeaD’s emphatic percussion (on “Madd Men”). The new beat matches Sin-Dee’s resolve as she sets off on a tear for the rest of the day, maybe imagining she’ll learn some kind of truth from Chester when she finds him, maybe knowing she won’t.
As focused and ferocious as Sin-Dee’s mission may be, it’s only one piece of Tangerine‘s sprawling, generous examination of how lies intersect with truths, and especially, how gender identities occasion such intersection. From the film’s start, Sin-Dee makes clear the limits of judging by appearances. “I look like the real thing,” she says, voicing at once her certainty and uncertainty, the difficulty of living in a body that someone else might see differently than she does. On one level, it’s a difficulty everyone faces, but on another, it’s particular to TG individuals like Sin-Dee and Alexandra.
Still, and to its immense credit, Tangerine doesn’t make their difficulty its focus, but spreads it out: when Sin-Dee does locate Dina (Mickey O’Hagan), both women contend with what it means to be “real”, how that can translate for beholders, boyfriends or pimps or anyone else. At first, Sin-Dee translates her rage at Chester into violence against her apparent rival, and, as Alexandra puts it, gets all “Chris Brown on her ass.” In a dressing room at a club where Alexandra is about to perform, they share makeup tips and stories, some more annoying than others. “Does your friend ever shut up?” asks Dina. No, Alexandra says of Sin-Dee, “That bitch been talking ever since I met her.”
Talking is but one way to maintain appearances, to keep a semblance of control, to hold on to just a little bit of self-image. On stage, Alexandra offers another way, singing one of her favorite songs, “Toyland”, made famous by Doris Day. When Alexandra begins to sing, the camera cuts between her and her listeners, one or two lost in their own hazes, some, like Sin-Dee, determined to appreciate the performance for what she thinks it might be.
When the shot cuts to Alexandra, the camera, for once, holds almost still, close on her face or figure, set against a brilliant red curtain, her mic entwined with a seasonal silver garland, her voice thin and lovely. She describes the “little girl and boy land” comprising childhood, where borders between genders might have briefly seemed clear. But that’s not necessarily true either, you now, as boys and girls are fictions, too.
Sin-Dee, Alexandra, and Dina go on talking, and they find — very tentatively — common ground (and not only the fact that at least tow of them have “sucked the same cock” or smoked the same dope). They remain competitive, certainly, but they come to see each other, too, in a set of moments garishly lit up when multiple players convene in the 24-hour Donut Time.
As the film uses all sorts of clichés to turn them at least partway inside out, it’s no surprise that one of these players is Sin-Dee’s client Razmik (Karren Karagulian), an Armenian cab driver (and Ashken’s son-in-law). Missing her while she was away, Razmik makes it his mission during the day to find her, even if he takes a couple of detours en route. At the same time, Ashken and Razmik’s wife Yeva (Luiza Nersisyan) determine, separately, to discover where he’s gone on Christmas Eve, neither believing that he’s working, as he says.
But he has been working, as has everyone else, thorough the movie. They work all hours to preserve their truths as facades, to share just enough, to protect what they can. As dazzling as Tangerine makes their many surfaces, as beautiful as its rich primary colors and wide shots surely are, you’re ever aware of what’s just out of frame, whether it’s the untold story or the secret kept, the baby who’s crying off screen or the dog whose claws tap-tap on a wood floor before you see him. Again and again, what you don’t see in this film is as vivid as what you do.