This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
"Tangerine" is a comedy about a transgender prostitute looking for her pimp's girlfriend
on Christmas Eve, shot with an iPhone camera. That description sounds like it could have been written as part of a parody of a film festival schedule. But the movie is the real deal. As written
by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch and directed by Baker, it's assured and immensely likable, and truly
independent in story and style.
The heroine is Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), who gets out of jail after six weeks and learns from her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) that the pimp she's in love with cheated on her while she was away—and with a cisgender female, of all things. This betrayal is established in the opening scene of "Tangerine," a conversation near the front window of a coffee shop. The scene lasts several minutes and is carried entirely by the performers' energy and humor, and by Baker and Radium Cheng's innovative photography. The movie was shot with an Anamorphic widescreen attachment, and the colors are super-saturated to the point where Sin-Dee and Alexandra might as well be characters in a Technicolor musical. The result is at once edgy and glossy, adjectives you don't normally see paired. Sin-Dee withdraws into sullen rage and stalks through the neighborhood. She spends the first half of the movie looking for the girlfriend, Dinah (Mickey O'Hagan), whose blond whiteness and God-given ladyparts amount to a double insult. During the second half, she's looking for her pimp, Chester (James Ransome, aka Ziggy on HBO's "The Wire"). Woe betide the bastard: Sin-Dee has fire in her eyes.
Sin-Dee's odyssey through Hollywood
provides the film's main action, but there are a couple of parallel
stories. One involves Alexandra's attempts to get everyone to come see
her perform that night at a local nightclub; she hands out postcards
when she's not chasing after her friend and inquiring about the targets
of Sin-Dee's wrath. The second strand belongs to an Armenian cabdriver
named Razmik (Karren Karagulian) who is married and has a child but
frequents transgender prostitutes on the side. His tastes are quite
specific, and he won't settle. In one of the movie's most revealing
scenes (in every sense), Razmik picks up a prostitute that he assumes is his
type only to discover that she has a vagina, and angrily demands that
she get out of his cab immediately.
This scene could stand for
"Tangerine" itself. It creates its own world, one with different
definitions of "normal" or "acceptable" than Hollywood or even
mainstream indie cinema usually offers, and the film is most thrilling for that
reason. The originality extends to the setting and how it's presented. Long sections of "Tangerine" consist of shots of people walking and walking and walking and walking to get anywhere in Los Angeles, sometimes after having waited on a bus that seemed as though it would never arrive, or taking a cab because they were too old or too drunk to drive their own vehicle, or because they don't have a vehicle, or can't have one. You almost never see a Los Angeles movie about people who don't own cars. This is a minor point in the movie's greater scheme, but it seems like one key to appreciating the movie's specialness.