Small-scale indie ‘Tangerine’ is beautiful, thrilling and groundbreaking

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On the surface, Sean Baker’s electric new movie “Tangerine” should predominantly appeal to the niche-preferring moviegoer.

The film centers on a pair of transgender* prostitutes, but favors a profanity-laced realism over something more erotic or suspenseful. It’s talky and contemplative and strange – staples of the micro-budget festival hit that usually comes recommended but rarely cashes in more than a couple million at the box office.

In this case, however, there’s more to it. “Tangerine” is alive. It possesses an energy that needs to be seen to be believed. Baker shoots his film entirely on an iPhone 5S, and you can feel the rawness of his vision. He’s frantically scuttling through alleys, quietly observing in the backseat of cabs, meticulously tracking along Los Angeles’ sparsely populated sidewalks. His methods are right in front of you, as if he’s filming in real-time, creating a theatrical experience both intimately interactive and gorgeously operatic.

“Tangerine” opens in conversation, a place where its characters come to life and its vibrant perspective shines through. On a blindingly bright Los Angeles Christmas Eve morning, best friends and colleagues (of a sort) Alexandra and Sin-Dee (newcomers Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) chat while cozied up in a booth at Donut Time. They’re talking about Sin-Dee’s (just ended) 30-day jail stint, but the loose rapport quickly tightens. Alexandra reveals that Sin-Dee’s boyfriend/pimp Chester (Baker regular James Ransone) was unfaithful during her incarceration, and obsession over the details dominates the scene. It’s all Sin-Dee can think or talk about; Alexandra, delighted to have her friend back, is meanwhile dreading the ensuing action. Now she’s got to deal with this all day.

Everything in “Tangerine” is rooted in human conflict, putting what’s essentially a buddy comedy into the hands of people who are typically, overwhelmingly avoided by popular artistic media. As the film splinters and floats in different directions, it comes together as a neo-mosaic of the city: while Sin-Dee is hell-bent on finding this code breaking homewrecker (Her name starts with a D; she amusingly refers to her as “Fish”), Alexandra sets off trying to convince colleagues and clients to attend her evening musical performance. And in interludes, we break into a day in the life of Razmik (Karren Karagulian), a mild-mannered cab driver with an undisclosed affinity for curbside sex.

The world of “Tangerine” is both excited and excitable, immersed in its grimy streets and underseen day-to-day. Baker’s work here is so fresh and assured that he never gives his audience a chance to catch their breath. Musically, he’ll swivel from assaultive trap to smooth classical to abrupt silence and then play it back, on a loop, on shuffle – the soundtrack is active in a way that’s immersively disorienting. His saturated images capture stark beauty, playing like a dreamlike, tangerine-hued foray into the L.A. streets when stitched together.

The cumulative sensory experience is utterly exceptional. There’s always a tendency to seek out that film or series or book that challenges the form – that fits into that “groundbreaking” narrative – at the expense of grappling with the work’s actual quality. But sometimes, and most definitely in the case of “Tangerine,” difference is enthralling. Here, it’s a jolt, both for the film and the audience.

“Tangerine” fuses its photography, its sound and its narrative to convey deep emotional truths. At the film’s center is a friendship more intimate and meaningful than any romance that American cinema has provided in the past few years. There’s no backstory to these women, and yet they erupt authentically. Their dialogue is distinct, while individual moments luminously expose their vulnerabilities. Alexandra’s musical performance to a crowd of two is achingly sad but also strangely empowering; Sin-Dee ruthlessly dragging “Fish” around Los Angeles is as much of a riot as it is a harrowing expression of loneliness. There’s a nuance to every action and every word that allows a fuller realization of their interior life.

A deep melancholy settles into “Tangerine,” rendering the bumbling structure and well-trodden conflicts totally appropriate to its chaotic sensibilities. In each of the film’s threads is a simultaneous despair and buoyancy. There are lies told and secrets kept, with characters expressing a subdued, maybe even repressed desire to extend beyond their bleakly imperfect experience of the city.

But with it comes an exuberant, inexplicable beauty. It’s “a beautifully wrapped-up lie,” as one character calls it – of the kind that shines the sun over tragedies as mundanely significant as a cheating boyfriend, a broken family, a life that will never be. The kind that shines the sun over Christmas Eve.

That description may aptly describe Baker’s vision of the City of Angels, but it only gets “Tangerine” half-right. The film is a beautifully wrapped-up package, to be sure. But a lie it is not. Unflinchingly genuine and startlingly humane, it’s the real deal – a vital discovery for the cinephiles and mainstream alike.


Strong Sat.


“Tangerine” is now available across streaming and video-on-demand platforms.


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