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USA 2015
Directed by
Sean Baker
89 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars


Synopsis: A transgender prostitute, Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), is released from prison and meets her best friend, Alexandra (Mya Taylor), also a transgender prostitute, at a donut shop. She learns that her boyfriend and pimp (James Ransone) has been cheating on her with a straight (or “cisgender”) female and goes looking for the bitch.

If Kevin Smith had gotten together with Larry Clark, with Spike Lee as advisor, and shot “KidsTwenty Years Later”, it might have come out looking like Tangerine.  But there is no need for that now as Sean Baker (as co-writer, director, cinematographer and editor) and Chris Bergoch (as co-writer) have given us a film about marginalized people which is offensively funny, impressively verisimilitudinous, emotionally touching and technically assured.

Shot entirely with three iPhone5 cameras with various attachments in a cinema verité style, the film follows the adventures of Sin-Dee and Alexandra over the course of a Christmas Eve in the seedy part of Hollywood around Santa Monica Boulevard. The film opens with a Tarantino-esque conversation between the two in the Donut-Time coffee shop in which Alexandra informs Sin-Dee of her man Chester’s infidelity thus instigating the latter’s rampaging search for him and Dinah (Mickey O'Hagan) the moll in question. Along the way there are a couple of parallel stories involving Alexandra's show that night at a local nightclub and a married Armenian cabdriver, Razmik (Karren Karagulian), who has a taste for lady-boys.

A lot of Tangerine is straight-out crass Samuel L. Jackson style “nigga” jive talk. One of my favourite lines came from one of the characters Sin-Dee confronts in her search for Chester.  Telling her to get out of his entirely empty “place of business”, he tells her that he is “morally opposed to this pimpin’ shit”. The mixture of acquired self-righteousness and witless crudity typifies the film’s affectionately humorous portrait of the world which the girls inhabit. The sharp, colour-saturated photography by Baker with Radium Cheung tellingly captures this discordantly garish, unforgiving world.  As Razmik’s mother-in-law puts it: “Los Angeles is a beautifully wrapped lie”.  Except that it's not so beautiful.  First time actors Rodriguez and Taylor are compelling but all the cast are thoroughly effective in bringing home the tawdriness of it all.  

Despite the crudity, as the film progresses we get to know, understand and empathize with its characters' hopes and dreams - Alexandra’s desire to be a torch-singer, the slow rapprochement between Sin-Dee and Dinah, Chester’s delusional self-justifications, Razmik’s estrangement, and the bond of real affection between Alexandra and Sin-Dee - in other words, natural human qualities which are co-existent with a world of street prostitution, fly-by-night brothels and drug use.  

Tangerine brings all this to the screen with both real heart and impressive guerilla film-making skills and whilst not for everyone, if you like a walk on the wild side every now and then, it won’t disappoint.

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