In Sean Baker’s visually striking new film Tangerine, the saturated Los Angeles landscape serves as the backdrop for a Christmas Eve that some of its inhabitants will never forget. Shot entirely on a series of iPhones, fitted with anamorphic lenses, the film offers an invigorating “day in the life” tale that is devilishly witty and full of depth. Fresh off her 28-day stint in prison, Sin-Dee (wonderfully played by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), a transgendered prostitute, is back on the block and ready to celebrate. While catching up with her best friend and fellow working girl Alexandra (Mya Taylor), Sin-Dee learns that her pimp boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone), has been cheating on her. Worst of all he is fooling around with a woman who was actually born with a vagina. This sets the stage for frantic day in which Sin-Dee goes on the warpath looking for both Chester and his mystery woman in hopes of getting to the bottom of the rumours.
Though the film carries the Duplass Brothers stamp of approval, the duo serve as producers, Tangerine is far more energetic than any of the works normally associated with the Duplass name. Existing in a heightened state that feels more like a cross between Spring Breakers and Crank, Baker’s film roars through the subculture of Los Angeles like a bat out of hell. Always one step away from blowing a fuse, or “snatching a wig” as she puts it, Sin-Dee is a time bomb who pulsates with the same vigor as a tiger about to pounce on its prey. Her fleeting minutes of calm, set to classical music no less, find Sin-Dee sitting at a bus stop silently contemplating if she should continue on her quest. The serene moment is quickly squashed with a simple expletive and she is back on her vengeful prowl once again.
What makes Sin-Dee such an engaging character is that she is completely driven by emotion. When friends try to warn her against any rash actions, for fear of going back to jail, she smugly snaps back “you act like prison is a bad thing.”
Baker wisely uses the characters such as Alexandra and Razmik (Karren Karagulian), an Armenian cab driver, to counterbalance Sin-Dee’s reckless personality and keep the film ground. Truth be told, Alexandra is the true heart and soul of the film. Through Mya Taylor’s sensational performance the film is able to touch on the sense of loneliness and vulnerability – Alexandra’s profession makes her even more prone to experiencing hate crimes – that often comes with being a transgendered person in a society that still clings to a narrow-minded definition when it comes to gender. Despite being in the early stages of her hormone treatment, Alexandra displays an inner confidence about her identity that Razmik, her only friend outside of Sin-Dee, who is also one of her occasional clients, seems to lack.
Considering the feverish energy flowing in Tangerine, Baker does a commendable job of incorporating several reflective moments throughout. Some of these moments are used to great comedic effect, while others highlight the importance of the friendship at the film’s core. By utilizing sequences such as the ones involving the random passengers in Razmik’s cab, Baker is able to convey the salient point that Sin-Dee and Alexandra are really not that different from the individuals who roam Los Angeles on a daily basis.
Providing a raw and refreshing slice of everyday life on the seedy side of Tinseltown, Tangerine is a gem of a film that should not be missed. Featuring breakthrough performances by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, the film brings a heart-pumping energy to the often harsh realities of life that cannot be concealed. Similar to way Sin-Dee, after sharing a peace pipe of crack, gazes upon her her battered foe, Sean Baker takes a long look at Los Angeles and manages to find beauty, humour and humanity in the most unlikely section of the city.