The first subject onscreen is a doughnut, delicately unwrapped by manicured hands. “Merry Christmas Eve, bitch”, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) pops off. Her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) sits across from her at a linoleum-coated table at Donut Time. “Are we supposed to share it?” she asks. Sin-Dee replies in her acidic, bubbly manner: “Yes, bitch—I’m broke!” It isn’t exactly what America associates with Christmastime. The season is the peak of Western capitalism first and a celebration of Jesus’s birth second, but in Sean Baker’s Tangerine (2015), it’s little more than another day.
There’s an Island of Misfit Toys feeling to almost all of Baker’s films, heavily influenced by the Italian neorealism movement of the ’40s and ‘50s. The work of De Sita and Fellini often focused on working class citizens on the outskirts of society; such are common themes for Baker’s filmography. Tangerine, however, feels the most modern, carrying its life force on its sleeve. As a modern redux of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, Tangerine might follow a pair of transgender sex workers, but it’s also a meditation on the working classes within capitalism. It’s emblematic of work where mutual encouragement is the glue that holds people together — a film where work is the common ground for everyone, emphasizing their similarities and differences.
In the aforementioned opening scene, Alexandra and Sin-Dee’s conversation quickly diverges into small talk, but the former accidentally reveals something to the latter. Sin-Dee’s pimp boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) has been cheating on her, and while that’s obvious to Alexandra, it’s bizarrely surprising to Sin-Dee. So what does she do? She goes on a Christmas Eve odyssey through Los Angeles to get to the bottom of it. Alexandra, all the while, has to keep her in check. Simple sanity might feel like its own benefits package when people are just trying to get by, but therein lies Alexandra’s motto: “Out here, it is all about our hustle, and that is it.”
American economics lie at the core of Tangerine, sitting like a pile of dirt where the most beautiful flowers blossom. The film follows a handful of characters—immigrant cab driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian) and his family; fellow prostitute Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan); and more—but centres the most on Alexandra, Razmik, and Sin-Dee. Their lives blur into a swirl of impulsivity and none of their jobs are divorced from their personal struggles, whether they’re domestic, personal, or romantic. All the while, working class interactions are captured as beautifully messy, especially when compared to the isolation of e-commerce in the twenty-first century. (Tangerine is largely void of modern-day technology, aside from a girl taking selfies in the back of Razmik’s taxi and a billboard that reads “Help make bitcoin grow” in one scene.) Work is the through line of everything, granting agency to the “Others” neglected by gentrified culture.
Sin-Dee and Alexandra happen to be trans women of colour. They don’t have the privileges that their wealthier counterparts do; they don’t have many options to achieve traditional success. Socioeconomics coerce them to use their bodies for work. It isn’t for nought, though, and their jobs help validate their bodies and identities. Razmik is shown to be into sex with pre-op trans women (“What the fuck is this?!” he shouts at a cisgender prostitute upon seeing her vagina). When he crosses paths with Alexandra, the two have a business transaction in his taxi, and as they float through a car wash, Razmik performs oral sex on her. Her hustle for success leads to a cisgender — yet marginalized — man worshipping her body. It’s the most self-reflexive scene of Tangerine: personal pleasure stemming from financial desperation.
And yet Alexandra’s work is still just a way to get to her play. Throughout the events of the day, she distributes flyers for her upcoming performance to passersby. Her passion is singing, which she realizes by renting out a local bar. Even her free time is related to work as she pays others — restaurant employees, bar managers, et al. — to help her fulfil her dreams. Virtually no one shows up aside from Sin-Dee and Dinah, and after a beautifully solemn performance of “Toyland”, the three leave by bus. Heartbreak coats Alexandra’s face and the others sit behind her. Dinah, under the impression that Alexandra was paid to perform, brags about supposed connections in the music industry. Sin-Dee tells her that Alexandra paid others in order to sing — that she paid others to create a temporary illusion of classical success.
And while the women go about their days, Razmik continues Christmastime with his family. All from Armenia, they’ve been indoctrinated into U.S. capitalism to varying degrees: “Los Angeles is a beautifully wrapped lie,” his stepmother crows while the family quietly eats dinner. The group is from a country that spent the latter half of the twentieth century reforming the Soviet Union’s communism, and while Razmik’s family remains separate from the constant influence of capitalism in the U.S., he sees work as an excuse to avoid the banality of domestic living. He skips out on the remainder of their festivities to his stepmother’s chagrin, and as he grabs his keys and heads out, Razmik retorts, “Christmas is for Americans. For us, it’s another work day.” In his eyes, work is a way to make money. Spending time with others yields no compensation. In America, the former is mandatory while the latter is pointless — or at least can appear to be.
As Razmik leaves to see Alexandra again, she, Sin-Dee, and Dinah reconvene with Chester at Donut Time. The taxi driver barges into this modest place of work; his stepmother tracks him down and is shocked by his association with the trans community. She’s appalled at its supposed perversity, and while conservative and progressive mindsets clash, the drama unfolds at yet another minimum wage establishment. And as the bark at each other like dogs chasing their tails, doughnuts sit behind them like sparkly cycles void of nourishment.
The owner kicks them out as the argument grows towards hysteria. Razmik and his stepmother return to their apartment; Sin-Dee, Alexandra, Dinah, and Chester continue to bicker outside. The Donut Time sign powers over them next to a billboard that says, “We buy ugly houses”, and as Sin-Dee learns that Alexandra slept with Chester, the pair’s friendship is shattered.
Chester leaves the scene. Dinah returns back to her motel brothel only to learn that there’s no space for her. Sin-Dee turns her back to Alexandra, strutting with the intention to make money by the end of the day, and as a truck approaches her, she flaunts herself to the vehicle. Woo’s and whistles fill the air from afar; she gets closer to the window.
And a group of men toss a cup of urine at her. They peel away, their tires screaming over their transphobic insults.
She screams. And then she cries.
As Alexandra runs over to help, she holds her and escorts her to an adjacent Laundromat. She takes Sin-Dee’s clothes and pays to have them washed, telling her to take off her wig. Sin-Dee is resistant; she’s yet to be seen without her golden blonde hair. But it’s dirty, and she’s tired—penniless at the end of a wash between the lonely and the lively. Alexandra takes off Sin-Dee’s hair, places it in the washing machine, and pops in a few quarters. As they sit with their backs to the dirty windows, Sin-Dee’s identity has been stripped from her by society’s prioritization of work over personal success. Alexandra sees this, takes off her own wig, and places it on Sin-Dee’s head. They lean on each other. It’s a bittersweet ending that flaunts its truth and its optimism, demonstrating the bond between the unseen.
Alone but held, naked but clothed, the warm buzz of six quarters hums around them. And their hustle continues, as does everyone else’s.