Rated R for strong and disturbing sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout, and drug use.
Running time: 88 minutes.
Three and a half stars out of four.
“Tangerine” is a great Los Angeles movie and a great indie and a great reminder of the possibilities of creativity during a time when everything is a sequel or a reboot or a comic-book spectacle.
The superheroes of Sean Baker’s film are fascinating, deeply flawed and outrageously funny. They are black transgender prostitutes, played by transgender actresses, and their mishaps and misadventures play out over a single day in a specific section of Hollywood. But what helps give Baker’s film a bracing sense of intimacy and immediacy is the fact that he shot it entirely on an iPhone camera. All of these elements added up might make “Tangerine” sound like a parody of an arthouse film — not unlike this year’s provocative “The Tribe,” a two-plus-hour drama about deaf students at a Ukrainian school, told entirely through sign language without subtitles.
But the use of this technology gives “Tangerine” a thrilling, fly-on-the-wall feeling — or, rather, a fly on the sidewalk. We are with these women every breathless step of the way as they pound the pavement in their neighborhood on Christmas Eve, visiting cheap restaurants, run-down strip malls, a seedy motel, a drag bar and a Laundromat. (And, miraculously, Baker and his team have made a movie about L.A. that’s totally accurate geographically. His characters walk in the right direction when they have a specific destination and travel on the right bus and subway lines, even getting off at the right stops. This third-generation Angeleno appreciates such attention to detail, because when this sort of thing is wrong, it’s totally distracting.)
First, though, we meet Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and her best friend, Alexandra (Mya Taylor), at their headquarters: the Donut Time at the corner of Santa Monica and Highland in Hollywood. (I can attest that Baker completely captures the colorful, ragtag vibe of this part of town; my son went to school two blocks up from Donut Time for the past three years.) Sin-Dee has just served a 28-day prison sentence, which should be reason to celebrate. But Alexandra accidentally informs her that her pimp/boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone, very funny in one wildly explosive late scene), has been cheating on her while she’s been behind bars. Adding insult to injury: He was messing around with a girl named Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), who happens to be white and anatomically female.
This sends Sin-Dee into a tizzy, an early indication of the intriguing contradictions Baker plans to explore in the script he co-wrote with Chris Bergoch. These are not nice women. These aren’t necessarily decent-hearted women. “Tangerine” has no interest in depicting these transgender characters as saints, martyrs or victims, but rather as real people: complicated, vulnerable, insecure, selfish and sometimes obnoxious. Their banter is lively, profane and infectious. Rodriguez and Taylor have such tremendous chemistry, they never make these women seem like flamboyant caricatures, but rather fully-formed human beings whose lives we’ve stepped into for the day.
Their dynamic consists of the brash Sin-Dee storming from place to place, pestering people for information about Chester’s whereabouts (and usually insulting them in the process), with the sophisticated Alexandra calmly tidying up after her and passing out flyers for her performance later that night at Hamburger Mary’s, a gay mainstay in the heart of West Hollywood.
A parallel storyline increasingly becomes intertwined with theirs. It follows an Armenian cabbie named Razmik (Karren Karagulian) as he drives around the neighborhood looking for fares. At first it seems as if the character merely exists to break up the moments between Sin-Dee and Alexandra’s antics, but his involvement eventually becomes clearer. A climactic showdown with his family — including his mother-in-law, wife and young child — goes way over the top, but Razmik is a great example of how there’s more than meets the eye with all these characters.
As the sun goes down and the hunt goes on, the possibilities for artistry with the iPhone camera reveal themselves in beautiful and surprising ways. The sky turns a deep and radiant orange, followed by cool purples, vibrantly capturing what a strangely hot and dry place L.A. can be at Christmastime. By comparison, though, the squalor of a drug den in a sleazy motel room is startlingly vivid.
After all the film’s raunchiness, profanity and abuse, though, “Tangerine” ends on an unexpectedly poignant note. The last shot is gorgeous and sweet and heartfelt — the perfect counterpoint to everything that came before it, and a moment of genuine emotion (and rare quiet) that feels earned.