Directed by Sean Baker
The spirit of a film like Tangerine is contagious. It's lack of shame and sense of thrill is hard for even the biggest prude to resist. The film is the latest from Sean Baker, always a fan of the more depraved corners of American culture, and it burned through the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Though it left the festival without any awards, it definitely won the word-of-mouth battle, and luckily won distribution. The film is a marvelous comedy focusing on those parts of Los Angeles that most people do their best to avoid. It's three main characters are two transgender prostitutes and an Armenian cab driver - not exactly a recipe for commercial success - but Baker finds hilarious pockets in these outrageous lives, exposing the secrets of a lifestyle that a lot of people try to keep secret. Baker famously shot this entire film on an iPhone 5S; that detail has helped a lot in building this film's reputation as a breath of fresh air in the American independent film scene. But whatever "camera" Baker chose to use for this film is pretty irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. There are movies that are shot on film that don't look as good as this film. That he's able to craft his opus with a smartphone and a pair of amateur performers as his stars shows the kind of artist he truly is.
After twenty-eight days in prison, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), a transgender hooker, is out - on Christmas Eve no less. On her first morning as a free woman, she meets up with her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) at Donut Time, a Korean-owned donut shop that turns out to be a major station of operation for most of this film's main characters. Tangerine's opening scene is a masterful work of exposition, and a perfect demonstration of the friendship dynamic between the two working girls. Sin-Dee is distressed that she hasn't heard from her pimp and boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone), but Alexandra thinks Sin-Dee should move on. Alexandra's hope to make Sin-Dee's day drama free is ruined when she accidentally spills the beans about Chester sleeping around with one of his cisgender prostitutes. The revelation sends Sin-Dee on a perpetually tyrannical, and often hysterical, journey throughout Los Angeles to find the woman trying to steal her man. In the same part of L.A., an Armenian taxi driver named Razmik (Karren Karagulian) roams the streets finding a mixture of fares ranging from the friendly to the hostile, from the neat and tidy to the blisteringly drunk. His connection to the other story of Tangerine seems dubious until we learn that he has a vice for prostitutes of Sin-Dee and Alexandra's kind. A working class husband with a baby daughter, Razmik keeps his secret hobby close to vest, but it is a hobby he has trouble resisting.
Tangerine understands the utter smallness of its production, but plays large. Baker's steadicam shots of Sin-Dee stomping around sidewalks, visiting various friends and enemies of Chester is usually accompanied by heavy EDM. The camera (I'm gonna call it a camera, not a phone) has a violent swooshing quality to it, like early Soderberg or Thomas Vinterberg's Dogme masterpiece, The Celebration. The film's boisterous cinematography is supported by a script (written by Baker and Chris Bergoch) that is frequently upping the ante on ridiculousness. A sequence in which Sin-Dee bursts into a seedy motel room filled with men receiving various sexual favors from a bevy of hookers is insane to begin with. That it ends with Sin-Dee dragging out a scrawny blonde named Dinah (Mickey O'Hagan) by her hair and subsequently pulling her along on several errands before confronting Chester with her at Donut Time, is just perfect storytelling. When Sin-Dee brings Dinah to one of Alexandra's singing performances and the two of them end up smoking crack in the bathroom, you're not laughing because you're surprised, but because it makes complete sense. The whole time, Baker practices complete control of his characters. These people are all over-the-top, but we are never laughing at them. These are fully-formed characters.
Tangerine is the likely the funniest movie I'll see all year (we'll see with Trainwreck on the schedule this coming weekend). It's humor is akin to the very best episodes of HBO's Veep where the insults fly out, each one more elaborate than the next. The performances from Rodriguez and Taylor evolve throughout the film. Their status as amateur performers is never really up for debate, but it's their interactions, both with each other and the surrounding cast of characters, where they truly showcase how they can entertain. By the film's end, we know that what they've done is a true performance. Karagulian's Razmik is wonderfully understated, a very nuts-and-bolts performance of a man who goes about most of his business very economically, whether he's driving someone to the airport or going down on Alexandra in a car wash. Tangerine's effect is mostly visceral. It's a film that's better watched and not written about. It's not striving for prestige, nor does it achieve it. But it is special, the first truly unique film that I've seen in quite some time. My only fear is that Tangerine may produce many copycats trying to make their masterpiece with their iPad. Independent film isn't solely about making the something on the cheap, it's about using your limited resources to your advantage. I can't think of a movie that better does this than Tangerine.