Not many Christmas films dare to take you down the nightmarish, sun-soaked rabbit hole of Los Angeles sex trade, but then again not many films behave like Tangerine at all. Set on a particularly busy, but far from well-behaved Christmas Eve, Tangerine is overflowing with the visual eccentricity & moral ambiguity you’d expect from an indie director making his breakout film on a handful of iPhone 5s (he has a name & it’s Sean Baker). However, what’s so great about the film is not necessarily the behind-the-camera showiness (although that stuff’s fun too). It’s the verisimilitude of its non-actress leads being let loose to run wild across the Los Angeles cityscape, dragging the audience by the hair through a violent, but hilarious whirlwind of drug abuse, sex trade, and tender exchanges of friendship & love in a world that’s been relentlessly unkind. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the skeezy fun of the film’s cracksmoke-fueled bathroom primping & puke-drenched cab rides that when the film slows down long enough to remind you of the cruel world its protagonists inhabit (a rare recess, that) the emotional toll is all the more affecting.
Our guides to this very specific version of a L.A.’s underbelly are a pair of trans sex workers named Alexandra & Sin-Dee. Alexandra is the audience surrogate. An aspiring singer with no interest in the intense flood of drama that drives the film, Alexandra is cool, collected, and often surprisingly wise, serving almost as a one-woman Greek chorus who’s there to comment on the goings on & offer support to her friend when needed. Sin-Dee, on the other hand, is the living personification of drama. Released from a one-month prison stay on Christmas Eve, Sin-Dee immediately launches into a revenge plot to destroy the woman she’s told her lover/former-pimp Chester has been cheating on her with while she was locked up. Once she finds the cisgender sex worker in question, Sin-Dee physically drags & beats on the unsuspecting adulteress until she can stage her intentionally climactic showdown at the film’s central meeting place, Donut Time. Joining them for the shouting match in the donut shop is Razmik, an Armenian cab driver/gentle john who lives at the fringes of their lives, but opens a gateway for the audience into another side of L.A. that Alexandra & Sin-Dee have no access to.
Even with the Donut Time blowup, the plot is unlikely to be what sticks in the viewer’s memory. Tangerine is a film most likely to be remembered for the story of its inexpensive production. For a feature filmed entirely on iPhones, it has a nice visual poetry to it, drawing an impressive potency out of images like graffiti murals, Christmas lights, automated car washes and, of course, donuts. Much like with this year’s pair of Patrick Brice films, Creep & The Overnight, Tangerine is an inspiring reminder of how much a determined filmmaker can accomplish with even the smallest pool of resources (all three films were produced by the Duplass Brothers, by the way).
The true-to-life (and riotously funny) performances from actresses Mya Taylor (Alexandra) & Kitana Kiki Rodriguez (Sin-Dee) are also likely to eat up much of the conversation surrounding the film, and deservedly so. Taylor & Rodriguez are vibrant talents with a natural, but wildly mischievous authenticity to them that’s rarely seen outside of John Waters’ films. I don’t say that lightly. John Waters is my favorite living artist. If there’s one movie I’d love to talk to him about at this very moment it would be Tangerine & all the credit for that impulse goes to Taylor & Rodriguez. The fact that they’re debuting in such a wickedly transgressive & visually impressive revenge comedy is almost secondary. Almost.