Tangerine and the Odyssey of Modern Times

illustration by Dani Manning

…Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.
Find the beginning.

—The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson

“It sounded a little old. Like, it didn’t sound like new music, it sounded like something I’d hear like a long time ago.”

Tangerine (2015), dir. Sean Baker


The word “odyssey” conjures something very specific in the modern imagination: the epic tale of the heroic journey of a great man. By this association, to say that Sean Baker’s Tangerine (2015) is an odyssey feels like a stretch. Even in the most technical sense of the term—a long and eventful journey—we might question the categorization. Is a journey long if it takes place over the course of a single day? Is a journey eventful if those events mostly take the form of brief, furious conversations with a seemingly never-ending string of drug dealers and pimps, blurring together almost indistinguishably?

The Odyssey may bring to mind a grand and sprawling journey, an epic adventure of a great hero. But, as Emily Wilson writes in the introduction to her translation of Homer’s epic, “In The Odyssey, we find instead the story of a man whose grand adventure is simply to go back to his own home, where he tries to turn everything back to the way it was before he went away. For this hero, mere survival is the most amazing feat of all.”

Wilson’s summary here could just as easily describe the plot of Tangerine, in which Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), fresh out of a month in prison, attempts to track down her pimp boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone), and the fish (read: cis woman) he cheated on her with. Sin-Dee returns home wanting to turn back the clock on her relationship with Chester by confronting him about this alleged affair. And, eking out precarious livings as sex workers, Sin-Dee and her friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) make this journey against a backdrop that constantly reminds the film’s audience just how much survival is an amazing feat for them, as well as for the characters they meet along the way: Razmik (Karren Karagulian), an Armenian cab driver; Dinah, the sex worker Chester has allegedly cheated with (Mickey O’Hagan); and a chorus of unnamed customer service and sex workers who populate the sidewalks of Los Angeles.

Tangerine takes the form of a restless odyssey across the yellow-tinted, overly saturated, sun-drenched, nigh-inhospitable (but determinedly inhabited) cityscape of Los Angeles. Alexandra and Sin-Dee’s intertwined journeys are interrupted as often as Odysseus’s return home, and even if their obstacles—cops, johns, taxi customers—are more mundane than Odysseus’s encounters with gods, witches, and man-eating monsters, their form is much the same: a constant forestalling, a delayed gratification that makes us consider whether the journey is more important than the destination.

Tangerine’s camera, like its characters, is restless; alternating from fast cuts to wide, sweeping shots, it doesn’t like to be stationary for long. It feels like it has a purpose of its own, the same need for motion that carries its characters through the day and night of one long Christmas Eve. It is dizzying, fueled by motion, only rarely standing still enough to give its audience—and its characters—a moment of reprieve. The slight shake of the handheld iPhone 5s on which it was filmed, a hallmark of the film’s visual language, adds to this restless, relentless quality, making even still shots feel alive, breathing, and impatient.

And, underpinning it all is the sense that this story—grounded by hyper-specific details, a strong sense of place, and an intimate closeness with its characters’ material lives—is doing something somehow timeless, as timeless as the epic poem from which it takes its form.


In the Odyssey, Odysseus returns home to find scores of suitors eating his food, waiting to compete for his wife. His home is overrun, overturned. After years of wandering, of trying to get home, of the twists and turns of his arduous, deadly journey, he doesn’t just get to come home. He has to fight for it, kill for it, aided and advised by the gods.

In Tangerine, this νόστος—this homecoming—isn’t simple, either, though it poses different complications. After all, what does a return home mean to those for whom “home” in the traditional sense of the word is not the organizing principle of their life? For whom “home” is not a fixed space, a domain over which to rule or a comforting place of rest?

For the characters in Tangerine, “home” is not a palace, like Odysseus’s; nor is it a suburban house, or even a city apartment. We hear about rent being due, we know that apartments—probably shitty ones—exist somewhere off-camera, but with the exception of several tense, uncomfortable scenes inside of Razmik’s home, we don’t see these places. These aren’t the places Tangerine’s characters go at the end of the night. Instead, “home” is only ever found in third-places: a car wash, a bathroom, a laundromat. A large factor in the film’s relentless pace is the fact that its characters have nowhere to rest, no neutral space that asks nothing of them. Alexandra finds brief respite with Razmik in a car wash, but she’s working while she does so. Chester operates his business from a table in a donut shop, where he has to pay to sit. Even Tangerine’s most intimate moments are marked by reminders of the demands of the outside world. 

“You’re Chester’s girlfriend? Is that what you fucking think?” Dinah taunts Sin-Dee on the bus. “You are so mad pathetic right now. You’re, like, home…waiting for him to call and shit. That’s sad. That’s fucking sad. I’m getting dragged around this fucking city is not as sad as you sitting [at] home thinking you’re Chester’s motherfucking girlfriend.” Sin-Dee conjures another image familiar to readers of the Odyssey: the ever-patient wife, Penelope, who waits and weaves and waits and weaves, for weeks and months and years, for Odysseus to come home, unraveling the burial shroud to forestall the moment of acceptance that she must now become another man’s wife. The wife who waits while her husband shacks up with Circe.

But Sin-Dee does not wait. She cannot. She is not, despite Dinah’s mocking, waiting at home for him to call and shit. She is the one on a journey, hunting Chester down. A pursuit, a relentless odyssey, that is never quite a homecoming.

These days, the Greek νόστος gives us nostalgia, a longing for the past, the pain of missing the what-once-was that we might call a kind of home. Tangerine’s characters don’t so much long for home as they hurtle themselves bodily towards the future, because getting to tomorrow means surviving today. After all, these characters know with crystal clarity that there is no going home. As Alexandra sings in her long-awaited performance of Doris Day’s Christmas song, “Toyland”: Childhood’s joy land / Mystic, merry toyland / Once you pass its borders / You can ne’er return again.

In this sun-scorched city landscape, Christmas hangs, ill-fitting, on the film’s aesthetic sensibility, a tacky string of tinsel hung up across its backdrop. In this version of Los Angeles, in the social experience of people displaced from the idyllic image of the American ur-family, Christmas is almost inconsequential, and certainly incidental. Christmas, as Eve Sedgwick reminds us, is that moment when “all the institutions are speaking with one voice”: the Church, the state, commerce, the media. “And meanwhile, the pairing ‘families/Christmas’ becomes increasingly tautological, as families more and more constitute themselves according to the schedule, and in the endlessly iterated image, of the holiday itself constituted in the image of ‘the’ family.”

“I remember one Christmas,” Alexandra begins a reverie, as she and Sin-Dee storm down a sidewalk side by side. She talks about a toy she once received, a gift she loved, an object that—like so many things do—broke, one day, a fracture in the picture-perfect childhood belief that things like “Christmas” and “family” are uncomplicated and joyful, that anything can last forever. “The world can be a cruel place,” she laments. “Yeah,” Sin-Dee agrees, flippant, acerbic, ever-practical. “It is cruel. God gave me a penis. That’s pretty damn cruel, don’t you think?”

Tangerine is a comedy punctuated in alternate measure by these cutting moments, these gut punches of humor, and by a deep, pervasive melancholy: a nostalgia, not for a lost home, but for an imagined future, for a feeling of possibility that seems to be just over the horizon, moving just too fast for its characters to keep up with on foot.


The Odyssey could not take place in a car, probably. Joyce has to give us Bloom’s Dublin largely on foot. O Brother, Where Art Thou? must contrive to keep taking vehicles away from Ulysses Everett McGill. There is something about the self-determination of the automobile that is antithetical to the form of the odyssey. Put Odysseus in a car, and he can drive straight back to Ithaca—or acknowledge that his lingering delay is intentional, that he isn’t ready to go home yet.

The open road, in the highway narrative of American literature and film, is a space of freedom, mobility, escape. It is also largely, though not exclusively, a masculine narrative. Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, Travels with Charley. The road trip, when it is not the father-led family road trip, is the man’s journey to seek out some part of himself he can only find out there. Mobility and automobility are central to the masculine imaginary, and vehicles become a prosthetic or apparatus of masculinity. Nowhere is this clearer than in Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry, where Brandon Teena is both manned by his ability to drive fast and reckless and hold on tight to a steering wheel while sirens flash behind him, and unmanned by a vicious rape in that very same car, after which the film is no longer able to see him as a man, despite its own best protestations.

In Tangerine, too, cars are masculinity made manifest. They are the domain of cops and johns, of the faceless men who hurl slurs and piss in Sin-Dee’s face out of their rolled-down window. Like homes, they are out of reach, inaccessible. But this distance from them is not only a foreclosure, of opportunity or mobility or freedom. It is also an opportunity in and of itself to see things differently, a refusal that opens a gap that can be filled with other things.

Without cars, Tangerine offers us a different look at Los Angeles from the city’s most famous cinematic appearances: on foot, on the Metro, and from the bus, the city feels different. A car, after all, is a protected, isolated space, climate-controlled and cut off from the feeling of the road, and of the other bodies on it. When you take the bus, you are suddenly put into conversation with those bodies. When you walk along the sidewalk, you feel its cracks and bumps, an embodied relationship that transforms the road from some passive surface we glide across into an equal participant in the act of motion. And whereas a car will take you directly where you need to go, when you take the bus you have to follow its routes. Even Razmik’s taxi, though under his own control, is at the whims of the journeys of his various unpleasant passengers. Razmik, whose masculinity is constantly called into question by others who learn he prefers trans sex workers to cis ones, drives a car that is markedly not his own.

Like the tides, or the whims of distant and equivocal gods, the road in Tangerine is not a neutral ground of exploration, but a force of its own. It is not something to be conquered; it is something to survive. And, foot-to-pavement, what it offers is movement.


“Odysseus, his son, and his wife are all stuck in a state of frustration and paralysis that has been continuing for years and is becoming unbearable,” Wilson tells us. So, too, are Sin-Dee, Alexandra, and Razmik. A month in prison, a stunted dream of becoming a performer, an unhappy family life. They start the film in stasis, and it is only their encounters with one another that set things in motion.

If the Odyssey centers around a family—Odysseus, his wife Penelope, and their son Telemachus—Tangerine centers instead the chosen kinship relationships of those for whom family is an ill-fitting garb. Razmik rejects his family, who are a loud and constrictive force echoing the unpleasant inconvenience of a string of disastrous cab fares, who ramble at him drunkenly, or vomit in his backseat, or impose upon him with awkward emotional outbursts. Alexandra and Sin-Dee seem to have no family to speak of, hardly surprising given the rate at which trans women, particularly Black trans women, are expelled from their family homes and made home-less.

Without families, they have only each other to rely on. And those relationships, we are often reminded, can be as precarious as their lives are, as transactional as their business dealings, and as changeable as the landscape of Los Angeles around them.

The Odyssey, Wilson writes, “promotes but also questions its own fantasies and ideals, such as the idea that time and change can be undone, and the notion that there is such a thing as home, where people and relationships can stay forever the same.” Tangerine holds no illusions about the idea that things can stay the same: everything is temporary, everything is contingent. Everything is constantly in motion, the world spinning by at a breathless pace.

But something magical happens at the center of the film, a moment of pure stillness to contrast the relentless motion of the camera that surrounds it on all sides. Alexandra performs—first “Toyland,” and then another song we don’t get to hear—as the film lapses into a dream-like ease, a moment suspended in time. LaVelle Ridley calls it utopian, this moment: a vision of Black trans futurity, suspended in the moment of Alexandra’s song. And, for a moment, the movie stands still. It stops rushing. Its characters, and its audience, can breathe.

Later, Dinah criticizes Alexandra’s song choice: “It sounded a little old. Like, it didn’t sound like new music, it sounded like something I’d hear, like, a long time ago.” She is thinking about Alexandra’s music as a business transaction: get paid to sing, sing something that makes people want to keep paying you. And, by this criteria, it fails. It isn’t a particularly good performance, and certainly not one with any commercial appeal—in fact, Alexandra, we realize, doesn’t get paid for it, but instead has to pay for the opportunity herself.

But that isn’t why Alexandra sings. Alexandra sings to capture something—some unnameable nostalgia—that can’t be put to words. Something not old but timeless, that reaches back to hold hands with, perhaps among other things, an ancient poem about a journey home.

This moment doesn’t last long. When Alexandra starts her second song, Sin-Dee and Dinah head to the bathroom to put on makeup and get high. But, for a moment, suspended in time, a moment filled with an unplaceable kind of nostalgia, Sin-Dee watches her best friend do the thing she’s dreamed of doing. And she watches her with a tenderness that could only ever be called love.


The opening lines of the Odyssey have been translated time and time again, each translation with its own rhythm, its own emphasis, some preferring the readability of the verse in English and others foregrounding accuracy. Chapman, whose Homer translation Keats first looked into, offers: “The man, O Muse, inform, that many a way / Wound with his wisdom to his wished stay; / That wandered wondrous far, when he the town / Of sacred Troy had sack’d and shivered down.” Alexander Pope’s infamously inaccurate—though beautiful—translation gives: “The man for wisdom’s various arts renown’d, / Long exercised in woes, O Muse! resound; / Who, when his arms had wrought the destined fall / Of sacred Troy, and razed her heaven-built wall…”

Robert Fitzgerald: “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story / of that man skilled in all ways of contending, / the wanderer, harried for years on end, / after he plundered the stronghold / on the proud height of Troy.” Robert Fagles: “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns… / driven time and again off course, once he had plundered / the hallowed heights of Troy.” Richmond Lattimore: “Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven / far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.”

Each highlights the strength and skill of Odysseus, cunning Odysseus, the man of twists and turns, the man of many ways, that man skilled in all ways of contending. A war-proven general, a time-tested cunning mind, an exceptional man. A hero. It sets him up as worthy of contending with the greatness of Troy itself, sacred Troy, proud Troy, hallowed Troy, her heaven-built wall.

“But in some ways,” Wilson tells us, “the story told in this long piece of verse is small and ordinary. It is a story, as the first word of the original Greek tells us, about ‘a man’ (andra).”

“Tell me about a complicated man,” Wilson offers up, a small and ordinary counter to the grandeur of Pope, of Fitzgerald, of Lattimore. “Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost.”

Razmik supports the family, he takes care of us, his wife tells her mother—and even in the heat of the moment, even in the depths of this bitter fight, it seems that she genuinely means it. He wanders, yes, but at the end of the day he comes home. He provides. He does what he can. Tell me about a complicated man.

But here’s the thing: what didn’t she tell you? Chester gloats, victoriously, viciously, his best attempt to tear Sin-Dee and Alexandra apart. It was only once. It didn’t mean a thing, Alexandra pleads as Sin-Dee storms off.

Everyone in Tangerine is complicated. Complicated, and small, and ordinary. Their complications, their imperfections, make them ordinary. And, because they are ordinary, they don’t expect great deeds or noble sacrifices from one another. They take what they can get.


The film ends in a moment of profound and quiet intimacy.

Covered in piss, Sin-Dee lets Alexandra usher her into the nearby laundromat, pull off the worst of her urine-soaked clothes, and wipe her skin clean. This has to come off, too, Alexandra says, reaching for Sin-Dee’s wig. Sin-Dee struggles, resists, not wanting to give over this marker of her self-determination, her hard-won femininity, but a moment later resigns herself and throws it off.

The two of them sit in uncomfortable silence to wait for Sin-Dee’s clothes. Eventually, Alexandra takes off her own wig and gives it to Sin-Dee. For a moment, we see the two of them from outside of the laundromat, through the plate-glass window, the reflection of passing headlights and brake lights moving past them. We are outside, looking in; they are alone in their intimacy. And when we return to the inside of the laundromat with them, something has transformed. They smile. They joke. Their argument over Chester is not forgotten, but temporarily set aside. Alexandra fixes Sin-Dee’s bra strap and hair for her. Sin-Dee reaches out, and puts her hand in Alexandra’s.

Tangerine might be a manifesto of a kind of care that we could call “good enough,” a care in which we cannot give each other everything, but we can give each other everything we can—a single donut, bought with your last dollar; a few minutes of attention when it matters most; a wig. Together on the journey, trying to survive, that good enough keeps us looking over the horizon, towards that utopian possibility of something better. Not something grand, or even great. Something small and ordinary, but better.

And, over the sound of the laundromat washer, the credits roll.