Bursting with unbridled humor and nervy, uncompromising brio, “Tangerine” is a study in contradictions. On one hand, this day-in-the-life of transgender sex workers in Los Angeles plunges viewers into one of the city’s scruffiest, most sordid subcultures. On the other, it possesses great sweetness and beauty.
The shaggy-dog story of a prostitute on a mission to exact revenge on her two-timing pimp — on Christmas Eve, no less — isn’t exactly the stuff of Frank Capra sentiment. But in the hands of a filmmaker as compassionate as Sean Baker, this walk on the wild side turns into a witty and unexpectedly heartwarming meditation on friendship and human nature at its most resilient and optimistic.
Newcomers Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez play Alexandra and Sin-Dee, the latter of whom has just been released from a short stint in jail as “Tangerine” opens. Over a shared doughnut, Alexandra casually lets slip that Sin-Dee’s pimp and boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone), has been cheating on her while she was in the can.
In a rage, Sin-Dee sets off to find the woman and then confront Chester. Alexandra wants to support her best friend but is also wary of the drama that is sure to ensue. Teetering behind Sin-Dee as she sashays angrily through the strip-malled streets of West Hollywood, Alexandra begs her to back off, all the while showering fellow hustlers and random passersby with flyers inviting them to hear her sing at a club later that night.
The plot of “Tangerine” is a simple one, giving Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch the simplest of scaffolding on which to construct a series of vignettes that are alternately amusing, appalling, revealing and surprisingly touching. Blessed with a high-pitched voice and a quick, sharp tongue, Sin-Dee cuts a wide, swaggering swath through some of L.A.’s most depressing precincts, dismissing friends and enemies alike with hilariously cutting remarks and a flick of her blond-toned wig. Taylor’s Alexandra is far more sedate and watchful, even as Sin-Dee grows increasingly out of control.
When Sin-Dee finally finds the offending Other Woman — who happens to be biologically female, adding to her outrage — the three wind up sharing an improbably chummy night on the town, which includes Alexandra’s winsome singing engagement. It all culminates in a deranged finale at Donut Time, which functions much the same way in “Tangerine” as the 21 Club did in “Sweet Smell of Success.” (It’s here that Sin-Dee utters what may be my rom-com favorite line of the season: “At the Long Beach Barbecue Festival, you told me I was the only girl you ever loved.”)
It would be easy to accuse Baker of opportunism in casting Taylor and Rodriguez — both trans in real life, with firsthand knowledge of the community that the film depicts — in a portrait of a world that filmmakers often exploit either for voyeuristic salaciousness or moralistic pity. But he imbues even his most marginalized characters with strength, dignity and even wisdom as they boldly navigate the Dream Factory’s seamiest underbelly on their own self-possessed terms. What’s more, he shot “Tangerine” entirely on iPhones, outfitted with anamorphic lenses, resulting in a color palette that’s at once lush, soothing and lurid.
Gorgeously shot and smoothly edited, the film moves with ease through a day that, when an Armenian taxi driver named Razmik (Karren Karagulian) gets into the mix, just gets weirder.
As one character observes in “Tangerine,” Los Angeles is “a beautifully wrapped lie.” Baker has created a fitting homage to artifice and the often tawdry, tender realities that lie beneath.
(At the Tivoli.)
Rated R | Time: 1:28