Picture this: You’re visiting Los Angeles, just outside West Hollywood. The sun is beating down with such solar gusto the sidewalk shimmers. You’re en route to the nearby Donut Time for a breakfast of fried confections to start your day. No sooner do you set foot through the door and sidle up to the counter, anticipating sugary treats, than you find yourself caught up in a scorned woman’s whirlwind. She struts out of the joint with ferocious purpose, catching you in her wake like so much flotsam as she spouts argot and acrimony, her exasperated friend in tow. Within seconds you’re caroming around the city, inescapably strung along, struggling to keep stride with your righteously pissed host as she seeks the satisfaction of her own personal justice—wherever that may be. Your day has been hijacked. That chocolate twist blurs into distant memory.
That’s Tangerine in a nutshell. Still scorching hot after winning hearts, minds and sociopolitical sensibilities at Sundance, the film is an uncontrollable, outsized experience, contradictorily a brisk, compact 88 minutes totally absent of waste. Sean Baker, directing through iPhones outfitted with anamorphic lens adapters, has a mission, much like his protagonists. He has a destination in mind. Like Family Circus’s perpetually aimless Billy, he takes a sprawling walk around town, but that’s part of the point: Baker treats L.A. like a living, breathing character as much as a backdrop for his study of the sex work industry, told from ground-level perspectives.
Still, he’s more interested in ubiquitous compassion than he is in the mechanics of his characters’ stock and trade. Tangerine could be about anyone, anywhere, at anytime. That it’s about Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), two transgendered prostitutes working Santa Monica Boulevard, makes the film a tonic. Sin-Dee is our miffed heroine, fresh off a prison stint and on a tear after learning that her beau/pimp Chester (James Ransone) cheated on her with a cisgendered white gal. Alexandra, Sin-Dee’s bestie, tries mightily to soothe Sin-Dee’s ire, but the woman is implacable and unpredictable. So they split up, Sin-Dee in pursuit of retribution, Alexandra on the clock as she promotes a performance she’s putting on at a bar that very evening. It’s Christmas Eve: Happy holidays—and all the while, a taxi cab driver (the excellent Karren Karagulian) cuts through the streets, picking up fares as he heads toward an inevitable meet-up with our leading ladies, though the questions of “how” and “why” are best left unsaid.
The differences in Sin-Dee’s and Alexandra’s personalities are stark and pronounced. We know whom they are and what they’re about as they wish each other a “Merry Christmas Eve, bitch” in Tangerine’s opening moments. Separating them nearly feels like a mistake on the storyteller’s part, but we know they’re bound to reconvene once the film’s day turns to night, and besides, they’re so damn fascinating that Baker could devote an individual picture to each. Sin-Dee’s a darling spitfire, Alexandra’s cool and contemplative, but no less willing to mess you up if you cross her—yet at their cores, they’re both achingly vulnerable, and both actresses lay their very beings bare on the screen with star-making vim.
Here’s a blanket statement tinged with some righteous anger: We often don’t see these types of stories in mainstream cinema, and even indie filmmakers typically shy away from them in favor of yarns about middle class, Caucasian ennui. Graciously, Tangerine reminds us of the value of tales from the fringe by airdropping us right into Sin-Dee’s and Alexandra’s POVs. The effect is a clever reversal: As Sin-Dee and Alexandra go about their respective businesses, we become the outsiders. If Baker failed at context, we might wish for a dictionary to translate the film’s slang. (What’s that about tea? What’s a fish?) We’re so submerged in Tangerine’s world that the alien quickly becomes familiar, and Baker’s principals grow on us twice as fast.
Tangerine is lurid, ribald and sleazy in the most complimentary ways possible, because it’s suffused with rich empathy. Nothing pronounces the film’s intentions more clearly than Baker’s style: His aesthetic boasts neon vibrancy, the kind of sparks only real life can generate, but amidst the bombastic crackle of his mise en scène, he maintains a down-to-Earth naturalism. Tangerine doesn’t preach or condescend. We’re not tourists poking at urbane exhibitions through plate glass—we’re guests. Baker invites us to feel what Sin-Dee and Alexandra feel, which frankly isn’t that far off from what most of us feel in our day to day. And that happens to be the film’s greatest stunt: We think ourselves apart from these women, utterly different, but the truth is that we’re far more alike than we realize at a glance. And Tangerine gazes far deeper than that.
Director: Sean S. Baker
Writers: Sean S. Baker, Chris Bergoch
Starring: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karren Karagulian, James Ransone, Mickey O’Hagan
Release Date: July 10, 2015
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% Vermont craft brews.