Apart from being one of the best movies made in and about L.A., Sean S. Baker’s (perhaps still best known for his Greg the Bunny TV series) Tangerine also offers audiences a modern Christmastime classic that’s far more enjoyable than that A Very Murray Christmas tripe.
Like most good movies, Tangerine takes place in the span of a single day–Christmas Eve, to be specific. The arrival of loud-mouthed, star trans prostitute of the block, Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), is momentarily mild upon her arrival at the local pimp/whore haunt of the boulevard, Donut Time. After her 28-day stint in jail, the first person she meets up with is her best friend and fellow trans sex worker, Alexandra (Mya Taylor). After Sin-Dee buys Alexandra a donut and they begin to catch up, Alexandra accidentally lets the “fish” out of the bag by informing her that her pimp/boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone), has been cheating on her with a bona fide woman, who, to make matters worse, is white. Sin-Dee’s immediate reaction is one of vengeance, demanding to know what the bitch’s name is. Alexandra can only give her the minimal information that it’s something that starts with a “D,” like “Danielle, Desiree, DeeDee.”
With this intelligence in tow, Sin-Dee storms the streets talking to everyone who knows Chester to ask where he or Danielle/Desiree/DeeDee might be. Alexandra, meanwhile, insists on no drama if Sin-Dee expects her to accompany her on this excursion. All the while, she passes out fliers to everyone she knows advertising her performance at Hamburger Mary’s that evening at 7 in West Hollywood. As Sin-Dee’s hunt intensifies, we cut to an Armenian cab driver named Razmik (Karren Karagulian), who must deal with a varied roster of passengers throughout the day, including an elderly woman who has just put her dog to sleep, a zany old man with a back story heading Downtown, a selfie-taking Asian girl in a Santa hat and a pair of day drunks celebrating early who vomit in his car. It isn’t clear what exactly Razmik’s role has to do with Sin-Dee and Alexandra until the latter meets up with him for a tryst in his cab as they go through a car wash. When Razmik learns Sin-Dee is back on the block, he practically salivates with lust. Alexandra uses this to encourage him to come to her performance that evening.
At this point, Sin-Dee has continued on her quest without Alexandra, who walked out the second Sin-Dee broke her promise of no drama. She traces Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan)–the real “D” name finally discovered–to a cess pool motel room filled with other cisgender prostitutes. Sin-Dee yanks Dinah from the shower and beats/drags her down the street so they can confront Chester together.
To our utter surprise and expectation, Razmik goes home to his wife, child and mother-in-law, all waiting for him to enjoy a Christmas Eve dinner together. All the while, however, it’s clear that his mind is on going to Hamburger Mary’s so that he can see Sin-Dee. Indeed, Sin-Dee almost realizes too late that she’s going to miss Alexandra’s “show” as she’s riding the bus with Dinah to get back to Donut Time where Chester is supposed to be.
Luckily for Alexandra, Sin-Dee arrives with Dinah at Hamburger Mary’s just as the manager threatens to bump her for not having any guests. It is at this moment that the true sadness–the sheer dinginess–of Christmas, particularly in Los Angeles, is highlighted. As Alexandra sits on the stage in a red dress with some tinsel on the microphone singing to a crowd of no more than five people, it’s evident that this holiday does not cater kindly to those who don’t have a conventional family. And yet, just as a “conventional” family member might, those closest to us are often the first to betray, a hard truth Sin-Dee learns after Chester tells her that he also cheated with Alexandra.
Sin-Dee’s reception of this news is perhaps even worse than when she found out about Dinah, as this time she is completely terse and somber as she says to Alexandra, “You two deserve each other.” With this, she storms down the street, determined to focus on making money for the rest of the night. Alexandra follows her faithfully, trying to get her to talk, only to be met with silence and a physical brushoff. But when Sin-Dee approaches a car full of men initially pretending to be interested in her services, she’s given the rude awakening of being splashed in the face with a cup of urine as one of them screams, “Merry Christmas, you tranny faggot!” It’s sort of like a much less pleasant version of “Merry Christmas, ya filthy animal.” Alexandra, who was about to give up on trying to reconcile, runs back over to Sin-Dee to help her and escort her to the nearest laundromat, where they take off her piss-doused wig and clothes to put in the wash. By now, it seems that Sin-Dee has made her peace with what Alexandra has done, a forgiveness solidified by Alexandra’s ultimate act of trans Christmas kindness: letting Sin-Dee wear her wig since she now doesn’t have a clean one. And so it would seem that Tangerine proves the spirit of Christmas catches up with people in even the most unlikely of settings and circumstances.