'Tangerine': Sundance Review

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
'Tangerine'
Juicy and delicious.

As transgender L.A. prostitute Alexandra says in the opening scene of Sean Baker's instant cult movie, "Merry Christmas Eve, bitch."

In one of many hilarious moments that make Tangerine a singularly delightful girlfriend movie with an attitude, busy working lady Sin-Dee interrupts the cosmetic repair job she's performing to take a hit of meth. "Bitch, you know what I taught you?" she tells her bosom buddy, Alexandra, in her customary mile-a-minute delivery with accompanying gesticulation. "Highlight, highlight, highlight. Contour, blush, blemish. Bam!"

That kind of fierce energy courses through every frame of this scrappy mosaic of Los Angeles street life, which centers on two black, transgender prostitutes working the blocks around Santa Monica and Highland. But while the flavorful dialogue is a hoot (the word "bitch" more or less serves as punctuation), it's the warmth and absence of judgment or condescension toward its marginalized characters that make Sean Baker's film such a vibrant and uplifting snapshot.

While the production comes from the Duplass brothers' stable, there's a touch of Harmony Korine here, a dash of John Waters and an echo of the resourcefulness of Jonathan Caouette, who made his dizzying 2003 memoir, Tarnation, with a little over $200, using iMovie software. Much attention will no doubt likewise be drawn to the microbudget of Tangerine by the fact that it was shot on iPhones, using anamorphic adapters to produce a crisp, vigorously cinematic look. That gives it an aesthetic purity, if you will, that stands out in a field where so much indie filmmaking has gotten glossier and less technically adventurous.

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In addition to the nimble camerawork (by Baker and Radium Cheung), which lavishes adoration onto a lot of bleak strip malls and charmless fast-food joints, the movie skitters along to an eclectic musical soundtrack that playfully mashes up the high drama of Beethoven with disco, hip-hop, techno, ambient, electronica and Armenian folk.

But the film's smart craftsmanship is ultimately less noteworthy than its humanizing, prejudice-challenging immersion into the lives of people who inhabit L.A.'s low-end drug and sex industry. That backdrop makes it a natural segue from Baker's 2012 feature, Starlet, about the unlikely cross-generational friendship between an aspiring porn actress and an elderly woman with a sad past.

Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is fresh out of a 28-day prison stint on Christmas Eve when her best friend, Alexandra (Mya Taylor), casually mentions that Sin-Dee's pimp and boyfriend, Chester, has been sleeping with a white woman, with "like, vagina and everything." Alexandra tries to calm her down, but Sin-Dee sets off on an implacable rampage to track down the offending interloper, Dinah (Mickey O'Hagan), and present her to Chester for a confrontation.

Alexandra declares her aversion to drama and instead continues trying to drum up an audience for her singing appearance in a club that night. Bansheelike Sin-Dee, however, manages quite capably on her own. She hauls the strung-out Dinah across town with maniacal purposefulness, literally dragging her by her hair out of a scuzzy motel sex-party room.

A parallel narrative track follows Armenian cab driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian) as he picks up random fares, each of them offering a small window into another life — a woman who has just had her beloved dog put to sleep; a kook taking selfies with a Hello Kitty tablet; a stoner who heaves the toxic contents of his stomach over the backseat.

Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch take their time revealing how Razmik's story intersects with those of Sin-Dee and Alexandra. But let's just say he's partial to that something extra they and their street sisters can offer; he partakes in one memorable scene while going through a car wash. There's also an amusing interaction between Alexandra and a pair of blase patrol cops, who are unfazed by the sight of her pummeling a John who tries to renege on a discounted transaction.

Razmik's predilections prompt him to slip away from a family Christmas meal. But his overbearing mother-in-law (Alla Tumanian) is inflamed by his absence, causing her to tail him, followed by his wife (Luiza Nersisyan). All of them converge at the tacky Donut Time hangout, manned by a long-suffering counter server (producer and production/costume designer Shih-Ching Tsou), while Sin-Dee and company are still negotiating a truce with the silver-tongued, black-talking white dude Chester (a very funny James Ransone).

There's an understated touch of farce to the escalating confusion, but also lingering moments of poignancy. Chief among them is Alexandra's haunting rendition of the Victor Herbert operetta song "Toyland" before a crowd consisting almost exclusively of Sin-Dee and the captive Dinah. But the major emotional swell happens when an unexpected revelation drives a wedge between Sin-Dee and Alexandra. Their reconciliation involves dogged determination, delicacy, a harsh dose of reality and a follow-up shot of sweet humor, which ends the film on an enormously satisfying note.

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Baker and Bergoch researched their script by interviewing a number of transgender prostitutes in the area. While their protagonist's name is a tip-off to the story's subversive fairy-tale element, there's also something of an ethnographer's anonymity afforded by using cameras that can be so nonintrusive. That must certainly have helped in getting such unself-conscious work from the cast, especially the transgender characters, who in a sense are always performing.

Rodriguez is divine, stomping around town in such a snit she practically emits fumes. But she's touching when she clings to the belief that Chester is her Prince Charming despite his transgressions, and it's even more moving when she feels betrayed by Alexandra. Taylor is no less flamboyantly verbose and sassy, but she gives a more measured performance, conveying moments of piercing solitude.

The way in which the film draws together these various minorities and outcasts — from barely assimilated immigrants to scrawny white crack whores to transgender amazons throwing shade or just trying to make a buck — is surprisingly heartwarming.

The ugly side of the sex trade, drug culture, discrimination, humiliation and exploitation is never sanitized, but it's handled with a lightness of touch that allows the focus to remain on the characters' proud dignity and resilience. There's something disarmingly old-fashioned about the film's final moments, which show that the enduring love between Sin-Dee and Alexandra makes them better off than folks like Dinah or Razmik, who can never be sure who — if anyone — has their backs.

Production companies: Duplass Brothers Productions, Through Films, in association with Cre Film, Freestyle Productions

Cast: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karren Karagulian, Mickey O'Hagan, Alla Tumanian, James Ransone, Luiza Nersisyan, Arsen Grigoryan, Ian Edwards, Shih-Ching Tsou

Director: Sean Baker

Screenwriters: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch

Producers: Sean Baker, Karrie Cox, Marcus Cox, Darren Dean, Shih-Ching Tsou

Executive producers: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass

Director of photography: Radium Cheung, Sean Baker

Production & costume designer: Shih-Ching Tsou

Editor: Sean Baker

Casting: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch

Sales: Submarine/ICM

No rating, 87 minutes.

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