Sean Baker’s Sundance crowd-pleaser Tangerine is a boisterous three-pronged farce that follows two transgender hookers and an Armenian male cabdriver through the seedier sections of Hollywood on Christmas Eve. Much of the attention for the movie has centered on its preposterously low shooting budget and camera, an iPhone 5s with a $7.99 high-def app, a Steadicam rig, and the odd anamorphic lens. The focus on indie ultrapoverty is a bit misleading, though, since the postproduction spit and polish and slick soundtrack lift Tangerine far out of the shoestring class, and it isn’t adventurous narratively, either. What’s extraordinary about Tangerine is that it’s everything an entertaining, old-fashioned, mainstream Hollywood comedy should be but no longer is. That nowadays you have to get this kind of stuff via Sundance from directors using iPhones is a drag — the wrong kind.
Consider the two leading ladies, who are beautiful in conventional ways, apart from their penises. Kitana Kiki Rodriguez is Sin-Dee, who has just emerged from jail after 28 days and learns while sharing a doughnut with her best friend and fellow sex worker, Alexandra (Mya Taylor), that her boyfriend-pimp, Chester, has been sleeping with a “white fish” (i.e., a biological woman, and Caucasian). This sends Sin-Dee on a tear down the sidewalk with Alexandra and the iPhone cameraman in pursuit — Sin-Dee with her tangerine skin, streaming blonde hair, and skinny ass, Alexandra with her black hair and more sumptuous cushion. Alexandra makes Sin-Dee promise there’ll be no “drama,” but the “Dee” in Sin-Dee clearly stands for “drama.” So when Sin-Dee’s faux-genial attempts to ascertain her boyfriend’s whereabouts turn into earsplitting fits, Alexandra peels off to hustle up customers and hand out cards advertising a show she’ll be performing that night.
The scenario created by Baker and his co-writer, Chris Bergoch, sounds like it’s from the Pedro Almodóvar playbook, but the style isn’t camp, high or low. This is a post-camp transgender comedy, both hilarious and heart-attack serious. You might howl as Sin-Dee storms into a decrepit motel room full of prostitutes and cowering johns and drags Chester’s little blonde thing, Dina (Mickey O’Hagan), out by her bleached hair — but you also worry she’ll draw blood. When people live this close to the edge, in identities they’ve fashioned for themselves, every moment seems like a fight to exist.
Much of Tangerine is bathed in — what else? — orange, the low, slanted winter sun suggesting a perpetual 5 p.m. while the characters race to find what they’re after before darkness (and Christmas). Baker’s L.A. is baked without being warm, empty-feeling and indifferent, a place for transacting business. The third major character is a seemingly cool customer, a cabdriver named Razmik (Karren Karagulian) who listens impassively to a menagerie of passengers (one lonely old babbler is played by 86-year-old Clu Gulager), his role in the action inexplicable until he begins to circle the neighborhood where Alexandra, Sin-Dee, and their fellow workers drift. Wedged in his apartment alongside his traditional family — wife, child, overbearing mother-in-law — Razmik goes into the back streets to find another kind of woman. He can express his true feelings (and Alexandra can pick up needed cash) in the front seat of his cab as it passes through a carwash — proving all you need is an iPhone; a few bucks for suds, spray, and a wipe-down; and a crack editor to create one of the most riotously suggestive (off-camera) sex scenes in the annals of cinema.
Tangerine builds to a rather stagy farce climax in a store with the name Donut Time. But by then this cooker has built up so much pressure that merely seeing these people (plus the mother-in-law, the “fish,” and Chester) in one place has you gasping. Rodriguez has a gift for physical comedy — fast, fierce, brazenly confident — but also the ability to let the mask drop to reveal a grim, pensive face. Taylor is her perfect counterpart — centered, with a capacious soul. Mouthy and washed out, O’Hagan lets you glimpse the emptiness of Dina’s life. James Ransone’s Chester is a lying sack of opportunism with an unexpectedly romantic heart.
To one degree or another, these are characters with stature — it’s their culture that’s stunted. They deserve a place at the table the way movies like this deserve a place at the multiplex.
*This article appears in the June 29, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.