Director: Sean Baker
Stars: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor
4 (out of 5) Globes
The early ’90s saw progressive-minded indie filmmakers using limited resources to flood the market with movies earnestly, sincerely, preachily speaking truth to LGBT power. They tended to be coming out stories and they made up for their occasional lack of artistry with how they chipped away at intolerance, helping to pave the way for the great strides that came. They also generally avoided the T part of LGBT. “Tangerine” recalls that era: It was shot with an iPhone 5, and it effectively exists to show than trans people are people too. But it looks better than most of those old films; this is director Sean Baker’s fifth feature (after, most recently, “Starlet”), and the images are at once chaotic and precise (and expensively color-corrected). And it holds back on bald sincerity, at least until the final minutes, when its impact will be all the more effective.
Indeed, the majority of “Tangerine” mimics the loose cannon, candy-colored, take-no-prisoners energy of its main star, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. A first-timer, much like her costar Mya Taylor, she plays Sin-Dee, a West Hollywood trans prostitute who in the opening scene discovers her pimp/boyfriend (James Ransone) is cheating on her. While she pounds the street to find him, her considerably more calm bestie and fellow sex worker Alexandra (Taylor) preps for a club show. Along the sidelines, a regular customer, Armenian cab driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian), deals with kooky clients while trying to hide his yen for trans trysts from his traditional family.
“Tangerine” looks like it was fun to make, and the fun actually translates over to the audience. That doesn’t always happen. It’s a farce in no particular hurry to get to its comic climax, which, like the screwballs of old, finds a formerly segregated ensemble congregating in one location for one over-the-top melee. Once that happens, Baker’s mobile phone-camera darts here and there, back and forth, not letting things get too serious. Even before then it’s as worked up as its stars, using comic techniques to get in Sin-Dee’s haywire mind as she raises “Jerry Spring Show”-level hell on anyone who gets in her way.
At the same time, it’s not watered-down for mass consumption. Its characters are allowed to be abrasive, even evil; Sin-Dee winds up spending much of the film being very cruel to Dinah (Mickey O’Hagen), the cisgender woman who’s stolen her man. It’s goofy, loud and very, very filthy, the characters free to follow their libidos. Sin-Dee and Alexandra aren’t the safe, largely sexless characters seen in the likes of “Dallas Buyers Club,” and they aren’t played by non-trans performers, like Jared Leto. Neither Rodriguez or Taylor give traditionally award-gobbling turns, but they’re magnetic performers who make for a classic comic duo type, the volcanic Sin-Dee playing off the quiet, more rational Alexandra. You can’t show “Tangerine” to your Fox News grandma, though Baker keeps one eye on the miseries of prostitution. You can, however, show it to your cool grandma, who will get a kick out of a film that posits a utopia where we allow those on the fringes to thrive without conforming, at least to society’s more boring traits.