Tangerine (2015) was one of two official competition films that I saw at the Sydney Film Festival. The film was shot entirely on an iPhone 5, a fact that frankly filled me with a fair bit of trepidation. For every interesting stylistic experiment we see released, it feels there are three or four gimmicky flicks that just look ugly.
Thankfully on that front the trepidation was unfounded. The film looks surprisingly good, dynamically shot, avoiding too much (or indeed really any) gimmicky shaky-cam. And indeed, the use of the iPhone is more than just a gimmick in this case. Director Sean Baker elected to use the everyday piece of technology in order to help put the inexperienced cast more at ease with what was going on. Initially the performances do feel a touch stilted. But I think it is actually more part of the audience getting used to the dialogue. It is not the overwritten, honed-to-perfection pitter patter we are used to. Rather, this feels authentic, the characters seemingly talking in their own voices, using their own lingo in conversational rhythm which is true to life, if not always true to cinematic convention. The use of the iPhone adds an additional layer of authenticity as well, with the grainy finish of the shots (that are never distractingly low in quality) feeling like it suits the story perfectly. The film doesn’t look boring either. The toying with shooting technique feels refreshingly playful, rather than being the point of the entire experience. Some scenes set to energetic music feel like really great music videos while the camera is sped right up in a couple of sequences to enhance what is taking place onscreen.
The main plot of the film follows transgender sex worker Sin-Dee, who has just been released from prison, only to discover her boyfriend is having an affair with a ‘fish’ (a derogatory term in the trans community for a cis-woman). What follows is essentially a day long journey to try and find this woman and confront Sin-Dee’s boyfriend. Along for the ride is her friend Alexandra, an aspiring musician trying to keep Sin-Dee from getting herself into too much trouble, whilst attempting to drum up support for a gig she is playing that night. In terms of writing, the film is really well done. It elicited many a laugh from the big audience at the State Theatre, predominately through the building of characters and getting the crowd to love them or their approach to life. There is also a subplot involving an Armenian/American cab driver, who pays for sex with Alexandra and Sin-Dee. On the surface, an Eastern European family man frequenting transgender sex workers feels like it could be an overwhelmingly cloying narrative strand. It never plays out like that though. It is a really well written part of the film, and we get a sense of his journey beyond the span of this single day. He is also part of some of the best scenes in the film, including a sex scene in a carwash that is loaded with meaning to the plot. The result is that the film has three main characters to feel invested in and want a positive outcome for. There is an occasional emotional element that does not entirely ring true with what has come before. But that is a minor storytelling quibble in a narrative that is dominated by an original approach.
Verdict: Sharply shot and with a level of lightly drawn authenticity that is pretty rare, Tangerine is one of my most recommended films of the festival. To wrangle the elements together to something that looks so great without ever feeling the slightest bit gimmicky, is a pretty darn good achievement by Baker and co. Stubby of Reschs