“Merry Christmas Eve, bitch.”
I’ve been swept in a whirlwind of Sean Baker this week, watching Tangerine a few days back and seeing The Florida Project yesterday. It’s always exciting to see the second film of an up-and-coming filmmaker who is likely here to stay. I was curious how the style of Tangerine would change or stay the same in another movie, and I’m glad to say that what I really loved about Tangerine was also present in The Florida Project: an innovative structure for some beautiful storytelling.
Tangerine follows two transgender sex workers, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), as they roam the streets of Hollywood following Sin-Dee’s release from prison. Alexandra recruits audience members for her vocal performance later that evening while Sin-Dee seeks revenge on her pimp/boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) who cheated on her while she was behind bars.
I really like how Sean Baker tells a story. Tangerine has a plot that can be summarized, but Baker seems less interested in events and more interested in characters. He wants to give you a sense of these people’s lives. There are scenes that involve seeking out and confronting Chester, the “antagonist” if you had to define one, but the film does a lot of meandering, introducing side characters and defining the lives of Sin-Dee and Alexandra through their environment. Baker also builds a really smart script, with characters who appear unimportant actually rounding out the story of the protagonist. Everything builds into a smart, interlaced climax reminiscent of the riot scene in Do the Right Thing.
The movie is also famous for its production, and it’s a story I absolutely love. Baker had to shoot the movie on a budget of $100,000, so the whole movie was shot on three iPhones 5s smartphones. It’s a really inspiring artistic move, and the movie also looks really great, making the case that a great story will always outweigh great technology. I really like the hot, yellow tint to convey the feeling of the streets of Hollywood. I’m sort of sensitive to offbeat lighting, but I think it really works in this case, only adding to the vibrant atmosphere that the story puts forward.
I was also impressed by the construction and use of characters. Sin-Dee and Alexandra aren’t the most likable people, plotting revenge and chewing out others for the majority of the film, but Baker balances their off-putting attitudes with beautiful moments of humanity and redemption, particularly towards the end of the movie. It’s a strategy he also adopts in The Florida Project, and it challenges the conventional use of the protagonist and their place in the story. Baker doesn’t seem interested in arcs because his movies feel like part of a greater whole; he captures a chunk of these character’s lives where a typical “arc” just wouldn’t seem appropriate.
Tangerine is a delightful movie that makes you think about what kind of narratives we might see in the future. Baker is an innovator, which I love, and I can’t wait to see more of his work as his style matures in the future.
Films Left to Watch: 857