Writer-director Sean Baker has explored the lives of marginalized American characters in an ever-fascinating series of unorthodox projects. These have ranged from hustling lower class immigrants in “Take Out” and “Prince of Broadway” to the travails of a meandering porn actress in “Starlet,” for which Baker brought the same nuanced approach to an unlikely target. His latest movie “Tangerine” feels more in tune with the two earlier features, which is a very good thing: In this ramshackle and wildly entertaining romp, as two transgender prostitutes in Los Angeles endure various dramas on Christmas eve, Baker once again manages to match underrepresented faces in American cinema with material that lets their personalities shine.
More specifically, “Tangerine” calls to mind “Prince of Broadway,” which blended the naturalistic portrait of a Chinatown purse smuggler with a story of reluctant fatherhood that wouldn’t seem out of place in a studio production. Similarly, “Tangerine” uses a crowdpleasing formula to explore figures typically reduced to caricature.
Set over the course of a single day, the vibrant movie plays out like a buddy comedy, as fellow prostitutes Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) wander around downtown L.A. and undergo a series of misadventures. Their plight adopts a unsuspecting screwball mold — a canny trick that manages to make their tale universally relatable.
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From the first scene, Baker plunges us into a lively world: Sitting in a diner shortly after Sin-Dee has been released from prison, the pair discuss her pimp boyfriend’s infidelity in a moody exchange that culminates with her decision to angrily track down the latest target of his affection. Baker underscores their exchanges with abrupt music cues, but it’s the unique look of the movie that truly lends itself to the perception of a fully defined world.
Shot exclusively on an iPhone 5 by Baker’s usual cinematographer Radium Cheung, the high contrast lighting enhances the gritty L.A. scenery. Most scenes unfold on dirty street corners and brightly-lit establishments that serve as the rambunctious figures’ natural habitat. The effect at once creates a sort of documentary realism and comments on the raggedy nature of the story by getting intimate with its subjects.
Over the course of their daylong odyssey, “Tangerine” never slows down. Sin-Dee’s furious energy as she goes on a rampage against her new rival is alternately unnerving and hilarious, while the confident Alexandra’s blunt reaction to a stingy customer gains much from her exuberant attitude. (“Don’t forget you’re not the only one with a dick,” she says.)
Yet while Sin-Dee and Alexandra mostly take center stage, Baker complicates the narrative with the related tale of Armenian cab driver Razmik (Karren Karaguillen, a regular in Baker’s films), a recurring customer who keeps his kinks secret from his conservatively-minded family. Though Razmik’s story doesn’t contain the same unique focus as the other leads, his dual lifestyle contributes to the sense that there’s more appealing about the decrepit setting than any outsider might think.
Notably, “Tangerine” panders to the notion than its main characters lead tragic lives. The impression of normalcy to their routine is a quietly radical maneuver. While the story involves spats with a moody pimp and ample crack smoking, these details unfold with a matter of fact approach rather than sensationalism. Baker’s story arrives at a hectic climax in which virtually the entire cast winds up in the same place for a comedically hectic confrontation. Despite the jittery production values, these events ultimately feel a little too neat, but that’s also what makes the movie as a whole so endearing: With a light, genial tone, Baker imbues each scene with a charming quality that sets the movie apart from anything else out there even as its underlying beats maintain a distinct familiarity.
The story wraps up with a series of bittersweet developments and more than a few loose ends, but Baker still finds a clean note to end on — the impression that no matter their larger challenges, these colorful urban characters triumph simply by surviving another hectic day.
“Tangerine” premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.