By Kyle G. King. “A Los Angeles story set on Christmas Eve, shot exclusively on iPhone 5’s, centered around two transgender prostitutes and an Armenian-American taxi driver”; it’s a premise that walks the razor’s edge of gimmick. But writer-director Sean Baker caps his fifth feature, Tangerine, with a magnetic energy that respectably probes identities and locations often fated to shallow caricature. Its contrasted sun-dried color palette paints LA in muted exuberance while safeguarding the iPhone’s tendency towards lens flares and poor depth of field. And Tangerine’s cast of amateur — yet wildly captivating — transgender actors keeps the film authentic, dynamic, and wholly entertaining: this is a fun, and refreshingly raw, inside look into one of LA’s more shaded sex-worker subcultures.
Back on the corner after a six-week stint in prison, street professional Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) doesn’t find much time to bask in her new-found freedom. Half a bite into a strawberry donut, her closest friend and co-coquette Alexandra (Mya Taylor) lets slip that Sin-Dee’s estranged pimp-boyfriend Chester (a goofy yet on-point James Ransone) got lonely for cisgendered company while Sin-Dee was away behind bars. “Like a real fish, girl. Like a vagina and everything.” Alexandra’s words (“fish” being vulgar slang for a non-trans woman) effectively light the wick to propel Sin-Dee out the donut shop doors, to the first of many explosive dubstep tracks as vigorous as Sin-Dee herself. Failing to talk her friend out of causing drama, Alexandra leaves Sin-Dee to her hunt only to get tied up with issues of her own, inadvertently involving the cops and a flaccid customer trying to rip her off. Eventually she reunites with preferred cabbie customer Razmik (Baker film regular Karren Karagulian), whose plot thread reveals a double life of working to support his wife and child, and a healthy appetite to support the fine trans ladies of Hollywood — in both financial and, well, oral capacities.
Energetic performances, camera work, and a bellicose soundtrack all lend themselves to heightened moments of pure adrenaline, with a similar pace to a good action film. Rodriguez struts in heels up and down sidewalks, to businesses and hotel rooms, demanding the camera follow her (inasmuch as stopping to pose for it). Her dialogue is sixty-five miles-per-hour as she commands authority in every scene – not necessarily articulating every line, but always overflowing with intent. Taylor aptly carries the more gentle and affected sides of Tangerine, with a subdued performance that grants the movie its unique heart. Karagulian’s taxicab storyline plays as fine reprieve from Sin-Dee’s chaos, but his scenes render as a somewhat uninspired addition — until the final climactic showdown with him, his wife, his mother-in-law, and his sexy professional friends inside a tightly packed donut shop.
Intentionally fleeing from editorial or advocacy, Tangerine isn’t a movie with a pointed political statement, as it refuses to judge or sensationalize its subject matter. Casting real transgender actors to play its characters redirects the film’s focus back to its story. It’s a no-brainer choice so often overlooked in Hollywood, one that allows the film to separate itself from a tone of pity or exploitation. Instead, the movie adorns sobering and mature performances to depict people how they might actually tend to be.
An occasional sense of peril lingers in the periphery of the film’s good time, however, ranging from uncomfortable misunderstanding to actual life-threatening situations. Sin-Dee can storm in uninvited to a hotel room sex party (with another film debut from YouTube-Vine sensation Chelcie Lynn), and escape without a scratch, but the same safety isn’t always guaranteed on the unguarded streets she works late at night. This dimension of danger further grounds the story in a true reality while rounding out much of the drama during the third and final act.
Despite some feeble production values (color correction on the iPhone images isn’t exactly consistent), some hacky ad-libbed dialogue, and (the entirely separate issue of) the commonality of trans-characters as prostitutes, Tangerine is a refreshing feature that doesn’t overly glamorize or degrade the lives of its characters. It provides — with both highs and lows — moments of brutal honesty, but finds its greatest distinction in being a purely fun and heartfelt ride, featuring underrepresented faces. “Merry Christmas Eve, Bitch.”