One of the very best films that played Sundance this year, Tangerine explodes into messy, vivid, hilarious and real life from the very first frame. I almost skipped this film because it was shot on an iPhone 5s, an affectation that irritates, but I’m glad I didn’t - not only is the film great, you wouldn’t know it was shot on an iPhone unless someone made an effort to tell you. The film is widescreen, with lush colors and gorgeous compositions - your Instagram videos do not look like this.
Tangerine is the most specifically Los Angeles movie I have seen in years, focusing on our culture of Armenian cab drivers and trans hookers who hang out at Donut Time, on the corner of Santa Monica and Highland. When visitors think of LA they picture palm trees and movie stars and beachfront properties, but for those of us living on the east side these hookers and drivers make up the seedy foundation of our city, and Tangerine approaches them with both an honest curiosity and an open hearted acceptance of their humanity.
Sin-Dee (Kiki Kitana Rodriguez) has just been released from a 28 day stint in jail for possession; she meets up with her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and discovers that her pimp/boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) has been running around on her with that most despicable sort - a fish. That, it turns out, is slang for ‘woman born with a vagina,’ and Sin-Dee spits it out like the worst kind of slur. She goes off in search of the fish who fucked her man to show her who’s the alpha while Alexandra tries to get people to come to her performance at the famous trans/drag bar Hamburger Mary’s. Meanwhile Razmik (Karren Karuglian) is a cabbie who, in between the usual trials and travails of a driver, likes to pick up a hooker and suck her dick every now and again. Of course his family has no idea what he’s doing, or why he’s leaving the house late on Christmas Eve in search of Sin-Dee.
Sean Baker (director of Starlet and, believe it or not, creator of Greg the Bunny) has made a film so full of propulsive energy that you can’t help but be swept up by it. Tangerine jumps between Alexandra and Sin-Dee and Razmik as they all bounce around Hollywood and eventually come together in a huge confrontation, and while that could all be super heavy and dark, Baker (along with co-writer Chris Bergoch) has filled every scene with humor. The movie is often laugh-out-loud funny, even when it peers into the seediest sides of LA’s low life, like a motel suite with crack whores in just about every nook and cranny.
What makes the film amazing is that it doesn’t short change the humanity and inherent sadness of these characters; despair is always just at the edge of the frame, ready to break into the lives of these people who are often their own worst enemies. Tangerine firmly shares their POV, though, and is never condescending or a cautionary tale. Things can be bad for these characters, but that’s not the defining aspects of their lives. Rather their lives revolve around the people they know and the relationships they have - just as they do for us all.
Baker’s lead women are essentially amateurs, and while Rodriguez is fun and broad, it’s Taylor who steals the film. She gives a truly soulful performance as someone with a dream stuck on the bottom rung of society; Alexandra’s tragedy is that she knows what could be out there for her, while Sin-Dee’s tragedy is that she’s just too focused on the day-to-day nonsense of the street. Ransone, the best known member of the cast, is a blast as the white boy pimp/dealer whose callous disregard for everybody around him sets off all the drama. He only appears at the end, as all the characters descend on Donut Time for a scene that’s out of a crack-smoking screwball comedy.
All of the action in Tangerine happens on Christmas Eve, and the ending is decidedly bittersweet. Baker has crafted a uniquely LA spin on the holiday, one that’s even sleazier than Shane Black could imagine, but also as sweet and dedicated to the power of friendship and love as any TV special. By walking that thin line between grit and gratitude, Tangerine explodes past its indie, shot on a phone origins and becomes a luridly lively love letter to mistakes, and the people who make them.