Entertainment·FILM REVIEW

Tangerine film explores transgender street culture with edgy comedy

Tangerine explores the funny and achingly emotional ties that bind two transgender sex workers on one dramatic Christmas Eve, says CBC film reviewer Eli Glasner.

Comedy shot entirely on smartphones dives deep into world of sex workers and trans street culture

Tangerine follows novice actors Kitana Kiki Rodriguez (left) and Mya Taylor (right) as Sin-Dee and Alex, a pair of transgender sex workers in L.A. (Video Services Corp)

Alexandra: "Life is cruel."

Sin-Dee: "Yeah. God gave me a penis."

Welcome to life on the strip with Sin-Dee and Alexandra, two transgender working girls on the streets of Los Angeles.

They talk the way they dress: fiercely and with no apologies. They're comedic, almost campy, but below the surface, there's a brutal honesty there just daring you to laugh.

Set during Christmas Eve, indie feature Tangerine follows Sin-Dee's release from jail and search for a woman who was sleeping with her boyfriend/pimp while she was locked up. So begins a hilarious tour through bars and brothels, as she bulldozes her way across the city, with Alexandra following reluctantly in her wake.

The latest from director Sean Baker, Tangerine arrives at a topical time as transgender issues have been thrust into the spotlight. His production approach was just as timely: Baker cast actors drawn from Vine and Instagram and shot the film entirely using iPhones. Even the soundtrack was culled from Soundcloud. If the internet made a movie, it would look something like Tangerine.

Tangerine is independent film director Sean Baker's fifth feature. (Video Services Corp.)

Speaking with CBC, Baker explained that using iPhones was a touch of serendipity. Originally, it was financial decision. However, as soon he began working with his cast, he realized how comfortable they appeared. 

Baker typically mixes first-time and more experienced actors and, usually, those just starting out take about a week to get comfortable with the camera. But with the iPhone, Baker discovered that Kitana Kiki Rodriguez (Sin-Dee) and Mya Taylor (Alexandra) found their confidence on the first day, even stopping to take selfies with their own phones between takes. 

When the filmmaker first encountered the pair, they were aspiring performers, but certainly not professionals. Baker originally met Taylor while hanging around a LGBT community centre where he and his screenwriter were conducting research. At the time, Taylor was focused on singing and performing.

A perfect pair

"When she brought Kiki to the table," Baker said he knew he had stumbled onto something. And watching the first few minutes of Tangerine, it's easy to see what he saw: Sin-Dee and Alex make a perfect pair.

Sin-Dee is in constant motion, cracking jokes and bashing heads. Trailing behind her is Alexandra – a slightly more practical gal who is trying to avoid more "drama." It's like a screwball comedy written by Homicide and The Wire creator David Simon.

As Sin-Dee continues on her mission, Baker breaks up the action with vignettes from Razmik, an Armenian taxi driver who transports a cross-section of Hollywood clichés, from a style blogger to drunk douchebags. With a wife and mother-in-law waiting for him at home, the immigrant driver heads out on a quest of his own – one that intersects with the central pair to hilarious effect. 

Produced by filmmaker-actor brothers Jay and Mark Duplass, Tangerine reflects their love of happy accidents and a loose and lively shooting style. But with its banging soundtrack and dramatic, arcing camera movements, Baker infuses his movie with an almost operatic feel. 

Given Sin-Dee's non-stop patter and the film's explosive finale, even Quentin Tarantino would admire Tangerine as a total riot. It's also bracing and brutal. Drawn from eight months of research, including hanging out in the strip malls and doughnut shops that make up this seldom-seen slice of L.A., Tangerine is a film that magnifies the lives of characters usually relegated to the fringe.

Note: Some foul language in the following film trailer.

Currently playing in Toronto cinemas, Tangerine will open in Vancouver on July 31, with more Canadian cities to follow.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?