★★★ / ★★★★
“Tangerine,” directed by Sean Baker, is a bawdy, energetic, independent picture about transgender prostitutes in Los Angeles, California but it is never cheap, sentimental, or cloying when it comes to the messages it attempts to portray about the harsh realities of working a street corner. It is highly dialogue-driven and very funny from beginning to end but peer closely and you will see a humanity behind an occupation often seen as less than, disgusting, or immoral.
Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) has just gotten out of a twenty-eight-day prison sentence. She meets her best friend, Alexandra (Mya Taylor), at a donut shop to catch up, and is accidentally informed that Sin-Dee’s pimp/boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone), has had sexual relations with another prostitute. To add insult to injury, this prostitute is a “real, white fish,” meaning a caucasian prostitute who is born a woman. Sin-Dee is enraged, determined to find the girl and confront Chester about his indiscretion.
The picture puts a human face behind prostitutes who happen to be transgender. Effortless is the way it portrays the friendship between Sin-Dee and Alexandra. It helps that the two leading performers were friends prior to filming so their chemistry is authentic. They tend to respond to each other’s dialogue with verve and electric simplicity that it feels as though their exchanges can be overheard at any time, any place.
Notice the way the soundtrack is utilized. It often matches the feeling or state of mind a character embodies or undergoes as she races toward an establishment or sits at a bench and waits for the bus. In less capable hands, the use of music in such a manner would have been distracting. Instead, although many things are going on at once, there is a level of control here. It employs just enough number of pauses in order to give us a chance to catch up to its wavelength.
The shining moment of the film is arguably Alexandra’s night performance at a bar. It is symbolic about friendship, solidarity (or lack thereof) amongst a marginalized but often unfairly maligned community and long-term, perhaps unreachable goals. Taylor plays the calmer character relative to her counterpart, but her unperturbed demeanor is exactly what is needed for a believable and interesting partnership.
Written by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch, “Tangerine” looks, sounds, and feels real—quite a feat for a work shot using only three iPhone 5s. It is a great example of budgetary constraints helping to elevate a film because the filmmakers, in some ways, are forced to be more creative or focus on other elements that might enhance a scene. Smart choices are abound here and what results is a work that feels very much alive.