For 88 jet-fueled minutes, Sean Baker's Tangerine careens through the urban corridors of Los Angeles with the laser-targeted intensity of a woman scorned. The pissed-off lady in question is Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), a transgender prostitute just released from prison who discovers that her pimp/boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) has been unfaithful. Caught up in the maelstrom of Sin-Dee's vengeful pursuit is Alexandra (Mya Taylor), another working girl who had the bad luck of accidentally spilling the news to her volatile friend.
It's Christmas Eve, and while the two women tear through the streets most people are celebrating at home. Ramzik (Karren Karagulian), an Armenian cab driver, has chosen to work instead. He scours around town looking for customers and occasionally cruising for the services Sin-Dee and Alexandra provide. Like them, he is someone living off the grid of society, doubly so since his sexuality remains hidden to the wife, mother-in-law and young child waiting at home.
"All men cheat. Out here it's all about our hustle." Alexandra's fateful (and wonderfully inclusive) words have very little sway over Sin-Dee as she makes one ill-advised decision after the next hoping to find Chester's new flame. One of the film's most hilarious sequences comes when she busts into a dank hotel room full of sex workers. The clientele may look decrepit, but Baker somehow manages to instill them all with a sense of normalcy as their pleasure routine is rudely interrupted.
Empathy runs through Tangerine's veins. Baker never treats any of his characters with an ounce of sarcasm or irony, a revelation that becomes clear in the film's strangely anti-climactic finale inside a late-night fast food establishment. After pounding the pavement for an entire day trying to reclaim a sense of order, each of the characters are finally confronted with the reality of chaos. They cannot control whom they love or how they live. Sometimes this is liberating, sometimes a death sentence.
Not your typical holiday movie, the film nevertheless sustains many of the themes like redemption and sacrifice one would normally associate with the genre. Except Baker never trivializes or sentimentalizes, instead creating a playful and edgy arena for fringe characters to reclaim their identity in a world that often ignores them.
Tangerine gained some much-deserved notoriety after its Sundance premiere for being shot entirely on an iPhone 5S. The visuals are uniquely colorful, propelled forward by a constant sense of desperation that matches the plot's melodramatic slant but also a clear understanding cinematic space. This blend of manic and controlled kinetics feels like a cross between the hyper-alive style of Neveldine/Taylor (makers of the Crank series) and the wide angle framing of Michael Mann.
Critical to the film's mesmerizing style is Baker's use of music. Classically old-fashioned at times and grippingly hip at others, the score acts as the film's pulse. This audio mish-mash complements the schizophrenic nature of Sin-Dee's search and Alexandra's growing frustration. You'll also notice a distinct lack of Christmas tunes.
As with Dree Hemingway and Besedka Johnson in his 2012 debut Starlet, Baker proves he is a skilled actor's director with the diverse cast of Tangerine made up of mostly newcomers. Rodriguez and Taylor are especially impressive in the lead roles, instilling a tenacity and strength in characters that need both in equal measure to survive. When Ransome finally shows up in the final scene as Chester, the great young actor gives his rodent-like a character a humility and pragmatism one doesn't expect.
Tangerine, which opens Friday, July 17, at the Ken Cinema, exemplifies the kind of heightened character-driven American indie we've been sorely missing since the early days of Hal Hartley. Each unabashedly messy moment is alive and kicking. Hell yeah, bae.
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