Like a bat out of hell does Tangerine begin, the new film from Sean Baker. Shot entirely on iPhones, this film has a very specific style and Baker is determined to shove it down the viewer’s throat. It’s a bold, visceral piece of work about a certain part of Los Angeles and the people who live there. Our heroes are two transgender prostitutes named Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kiki Kitana Rodriguez).
It’s Christmas Eve and Sin-Dee, just back from a 28-day stint in prison, learns from Alexandra that her pimp/boyfriend Chester (a scene-stealing James Ransone) has been cheating on her with a woman whose name starts with a “D.” And so begins a day-long odyssey for Sin-Dee to find “D” and confront Chester, while Alexandra walks around town inviting anyone and everyone to a solo-singing performance of hers at 7pm.
Parallel to the Alexandra/Sin-Dee narrative, we follow an Armenian cabbie named Razmik (Baker regular and wonderful actor Karren Karagulian) whose got a penchant for transgender prostitutes, more specifically Sin-Dee. In between dealing with angry couples, drunk bros and aggravated loners in the back of his cab, Razmik learns that Sin-Dee is back on the block, sparking his own odyssey which he must juggle around a Christmas Eve family dinner.
This piece of Los Angeles explodes with life and character, thanks in large part to the fluid and exploratory narrative structure and the sun-kissed color palette from Baker and his co-cinematographer Radium Cheung. Propelled forward with a pounding soundtrack culled together by music supervisor Matthew Smith, we become quickly endeared to both Alexandra and Sin-Dee. This world lacks in the “otherness” so many minority characters are defined by in films big and small. Sin-Dee can be, and is, both an ill-tempered transgender woman with a criminal record and a good person fighting to save a relationship she believes in.
Similarly, Razmik can be a working family man who loves his wife and child and an ill-tempered transgender woman with a criminal record. As the film races to a conclusion at the local Donut Time – where Chester conducts his business – characters collide in a raw, untethered scene that plays like Eugene O’Neill for the viral age. Ultimately, Baker’s grand success here is in building a wholly original piece of storytelling. This is a film I had not seen before, from a filmmaker I cannot wait to see more of.
Tangerine premiered at Sundance Film Festival.