Like a shot of vitamin C or a streak of a SoCal sunset, “Tangerine” is a stream of pure energy. Fresh, funny, original, and energetic, director Sean Baker’s film captures the seedy, gritty streets of Hollywood. It will surely ring true to many who know the town, but the film nonetheless refracts Los Angeles through the perspective of its two leading ladies, Sin-dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor).
The two BFFs catch up over a donut on Christmas Eve morning, the day that Sin-dee has been released from jail. Alexandra lets slip that Sin-dee’s boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone), has been cheating on her, which sets Sin-dee off on a day-long odyssey to find her man and her rival. It’s a wild and wacky affair, roaming up and down Santa Monica from Vermont to Highland and back, set to a thumping blend of trap music. Sin-dee stomps the pavement as if a whirling dervish, all exposed abdomen, wild blonde hair, and hurled curses. Alexandra’s more reserved, claiming she doesn’t want drama but always making sure Sin-dee’s okay.
There’s another thing about the girls: they are both transgender women, and prostitutes. During the day, Alexandra picks up a few tricks, while Sin-dee is hell bent on finding the girl that with whom Chester cheated. He’s also her pimp, and Sin-dee only has to burst into a dilapidated motel brothel to find the other woman, a junkie named Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), whose motor-mouth matches Sin-dee’s.
Also in the mix is one of the girls’ customers, an Armenian cab driver, Razmik (Karren Karagulian), who has to deal with the drunks and the crazies on the job and his mother-in-law at home. Throughout the day, the characters separate and come together, finally colliding in the confines of a donut shop.
“Tangerine” is a breath of fresh air in an indie landscape that often tends to focus on #WhitePeopleProblems. The film charges alongside Sin-dee as she takes the streets by storm: it was shot entirely on an iPhone 5S, thus accessing the real, down and dirty Hollywood, but also capturing some insanely beautiful tracking shots. There’s a quick, funny rapport between the two girls, who are a joy to watch onscreen; totally different but also totally in tune with each other. Taylor possesses a wonderful elegance and screen presence, and Rodriguez is an unstoppable force, her antics covering up her pain and vulnerability.
Ultimately, this is a film about friendship, and as much as it’s a fun ride, it’s not just fun and games with sex workers. The film takes care to show the danger, the awkwardness, and a sense that this “family” is all you have. It also highlights the discrimination and violence that trans people face, and the very necessary fact that banding together with friends is a means of survival.
Baker has a tendency to turn his camera on places where one wouldn’t normally look, applying a sophisticated technique to his cinematic storytelling. Drastically different in look and tone than his previous feature, “Starlet,” the approach is the same, though the style is more suited to this type of story. Utilizing underseen subjects, he captures their world in a thoughtful and artful way, and it also happens to be a damn fun ride. [A-]