Tangerine is the sort of movie that makes you feel optimistic about the possibilities of low-budget indie cinema. It's unlikely that any major studio would greenlight a neo-screwball comedy centered on the misadventures of two transgender prostitutes, so producers Mark and Jay Duplass and director Sean Baker scraped together a mere $100,000, shot the movie on the iPhone 5s (!) and turned in one of the coolest-looking flicks of the year. I have a strong suspicion that Baker will have a much more generous budget to work with next time.
The story unfolds over the course of an increasingly chaotic Christmas Eve in Hollywood. Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is a trans woman sex worker who has just finished up a 28-day prison sentence. She meets up with her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) – another trans prostitute - who reveals that Sin-Dee's boyfriend Chester (James Ransone, Red Hook Summer) has been having an affair with a prostitute named Dinah (Mickey O'Hagan). Infuriated, Sin-Dee determines to find Dinah, bring her to Chester and confront them both. Meanwhile, Alexandra is preparing for her musical stage show at a small club in West Hollywood, passing out flyers to people she meets while tagging along with Sin-Dee.
The first thing you notice about Tangerine is what a sense of visual momentum the whole thing has. The characters rarely stop moving, and it feels as if the camera is hustling to keep up with them as they walk briskly across the city. It's not just the physical movement of the camera and the characters, though: the peppy soundtrack (filled with brash, energetic pieces of techno and hip-hop) serves as another log on the fire, and the raw, funny dialogue is often delivered with breathless speed (there are times when Sin-Dee employs the word “bitch” frequently enough to make Jesse Pinkman's use of the term seem conservative).
Along the way, Tangerine provides an enjoyably detailed snapshot of the sort of people nobody in Hollywood pays any attention to. The characters in the film couldn't be more different from the glamorous movie stars and hotshot producers of Tinseltown. These are people so low on the social totem pole that even the police barely given them a second look: hungry prostitutes, slovenly johns, immigrant cab drivers and disorganized pimps. Usually, such characters are minor supporting figures in gritty cop dramas. In best-case scenarios, they're the subjects of mournful “issue movies.” It's delightful to see these characters – nuanced, lively and convincing - get their own version of an old Howard Hawks comedy.
The film's busiest and most memorable sequence comes late in the proceedings, as Sin-Dee, Alexandra, Chester, Dinah and a handful of other supporting characters who have worked their way into the proceedings collide within the confines of a small donut shop. It's a giddy, hilarious comic climax in which multiple story threads pay off simultaneously; the low-income equivalent of the similarly delightful country estate sequence in Noah Baumbach's Mistress America. It would be the high point of the movie, were it not for an ending so graceful and unexpected that it gives the film – which is largely a fun trifle – a surprising measure of emotional weight.
2015 has been a big year for the portrayal of the transgender community in pop culture, and what sets Tangerine apart from something like The Danish Girl or even a real-life documentary series like I Am Cait is that it's more interested in Sin-Dee and Alexandra as people than as transgender people. The film is keenly aware of the struggles these women face (there are numerous traces of the casual bigotry they experience on a daily basis, and there's at least one prominent instance of not-so-casual bigotry), but these characters aren't fully defined by their gender. It's also worth something that the film casts actual transgender women in these roles, and both turn out to be precisely right for the parts they've been handed: Taylor's Alexandra is relaxed, world-weary and soulful, while Rodriguez's Sin-Dee is a loud, aggressive, wide-eyed bundle of ceaseless energy. If there's any justice in the world, we'll get to see more of both of them (particularly Taylor, who has one scene so lovely that the whole, reckless, crazy film just stops for a minute to observe her).
Baker deserves some more attention, too. This isn't his first feature (his previous effort was the indie drama Starlet), but it's certainly the one that has inspired people to start talking about him. The notion of a film shot on an iPhone sounds groan-inducing, but Baker and cinematographer Radium Cheung persistently fight off the chilly vibe of cheap digital photography by applying warm, sun-baked filters that bathe the whole thing in a pleasing, distinctive orange glow. The crackling energy Baker serves up brings to mind the early work of Spike Lee or Danny Boyle, though the assorted flourishes never distract too prominently from the narrative. As the title suggests, Tangerine is a refreshing treat.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 88 minutes
Release Year: 2015