Sean Baker’s Tangerine remains one of the most audacious and poignant indie films of the past couple years. Newcomers Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez brought a searing authenticity to a story about trans women of color living in Hollywood, characters rarely if ever explored on screen with dignity and compassion. And with Baker’s follow-up, The Florida Project, he once again looks at the lives of characters living on the fringes of society.
June is a month of victory for the LGBTQ community. It’s the one time of the year lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people, and all other spectrums of queer sexualities and gender identities come together to honor the queer heroes who rioted, fought, and persevered before us. It’s a time of joy, of marching in parades, dancing in queer nightclubs and seeking comfort, safety, and acceptance as an LGBTQ person. But this year that sacred month of celebration was tarnished by the largest hate crime the LGBTQ community has ever faced.
Movies have long been a means of escapism, where one can slink away from their chaotic or mediocre lives into the anonymous oasis of a movie theater, or more often lately, into our streaming-equipped bedrooms and living rooms. I often think of Pauline Kael’s “Trash, Art, and the Movies” essay, in which she champions less prestigious pictures, the ones that make the most invigorating, lasting impressions on us, regardless of whether they’re regarded as “the best” films. “It’s the human material we react to most and remember longest,” she wrote. As much as movies enable us to escape the daily responsibilities of life, offering a chance to explore another world for a few hours, sometimes they bring us right back to ourselves. It’s when we’re left alone in the darkness to sit with ourselves that something transformative happens. It’s in those moments that a film, or even television, can lodge itself in our brains or hearts, injecting its roots until blossoming into larger revelations long afterward. Escaping through art can be the most cathartic and revealing process, where what’s on screen ends up holding a mirror back at us, perhaps seeing the things we don’t look at every day outside the theater. I like think Edward Hopper got it right. In one of my favorite paintings, Hopper’s New York Movie, a lone woman stands on the edges of a movie theater, her head down in deep contemplation as a film plays on screen. This is where the personal and the cinematic intersect.
With the official nomination announcement just a couple short weeks away, Oscar season is in full swing, and everybody loves a surprise category spoiler. In 2015, female performers had a particularly strong showing at the movies, leading to an overstuffed slate of potential Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress nominees. But actresses Kiki Kitana Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, the dark horses to end all dark horses, have recently taken on a champion of their cause who might just have the necessary public profile to push them over the top.
One of the most fascinating Oscar narratives to play out this season belongs to a curious film by indie stalwart Sean Baker titled Tangerine. Everything about it flips a big fat middle finger to convention: Baker cast Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, two non-professional transgender actresses, to star in the two lead roles. The film follows the pair over the course of a long Christmas Eve as they try to track down Sin-Dee Rella’s (Rodriguez) feckless boyfriend — word on the street is he shacked up with another woman while Sin-Dee was in the clink for a spell. And to top it all off, Baker shot this underground gem using an anamorphic lens hooked up to an iPhone. Tangerine is pretty much the anti-Oscar movie, and yet some are touting it as exactly the opposite of that opposite.
There are a few guaranteed things actors can do to get nominated for an Oscar. They can play someone with a disability or a disease, go to method extremes (hey, Leo), or play a transgender character. The only problem is, every major transgender role in a mainstream film has been played by a cisgender actor, or an actor who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth. Sean Baker’s low-budget indie Tangerine might change that, and make Oscar history along the way.
Talk of the Oscars has been taking up much of our time lately, but let’s take a break to highlight this year’s top indies. The Independent Spirit Awards, considered the most important awards in the indie film world, revealed their nominees on Tuesday.
Although not as publicized as award-winner Me and Earl and the Dying Girl following this year’s Sundance film festival, Tangerine was also a movie that got a lot of people talking. It’s the first film shot entirely on an iPhone to get a theatrical release, but that’s not the only exciting aspect — the film centers on two transgender women of color, a demographic that is sadly underrepresented in the media. And now you can see why this film is generating so much buzz via a new red band trailer.