Tangerine lights up and takes off in the first scene and doesn’t stop to take more than one breath until right before the end credits. It’s set on a stretch of West Hollywood populated with fast food, car washes, bus stops, strip malls, and prostitutes, where we find our leads, two transwomen. Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) are best friends and sex workers. While they share a donut to celebrate Christmas Eve, Sin-Dee learns her boyfriend/pimp (James Ransone) cheated on her while she was briefly imprisoned. This will not stand. So off she runs in pursuit of her man and the woman (Mickey O’Hagan) who slept with him. Sin-Dee is intent on revenge, while her friend follows along trying to talk her down. Writer-director Sean Baker whips up a whirlwind of activity, loud and hilarious, in a movie that’s humane and alive, crackling with tremendous energy and vitality.
It’s everything independent cinema should be, inventive filmmaking bursting with casual diversity and representing a point of view rarely explored. It’s perfectly cast with charismatic and compelling fresh faces, and expertly written in bursts of overlapping colloquial dialogue and staccato humor, the plot a raucous tightly plotted crescendo. Best of all, it’s gorgeously directed, with sumptuous widescreen digital photography. You’d never know it was captured on an iPhone, shaming the bland digital look of so many big budget films. Every shot is framed for forceful impact. Baker, with co-cinematographer Radium Cheung (who works on one of TV’s best looking shows, The Americans) creates a rich color palate – dripping in vibrant yellows and reds, bathed in golden caramel oranges – and beautiful texture, imbued with a constant charge of movement, following closely behind the boisterous proceedings.
There are swooping angles and emphatic movement, and a booming soundtrack (of hip-hop, classical, and carols), a sense of forward momentum and riotous entertainment to go with the sharply observed character and place. At the center of this loud, hard-charging comedy is a tender friendship. Sin-Dee and Alexandra are two of the most extraordinary characters in recent memory. They’re tough and hilarious, full of big dreams and fully aware of dangers and prejudices. They’re capable and vulnerable, serious and goofy, and they genuinely enjoy their time together, even though the course of events here tests their loyalty and support. They have their differences. Taylor is a great solid center around which Rodriguez can spin. It’s a good contrast. Taylor is a magnetic draw of quiet charisma, an anchor for the intensity around her. Rodriguez is more of clever charisma bomb, tearing through every scene with a quick wit, perfect timing, and a sharp argumentative edge.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen, eager to see what they’d do and say next. Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch give them great scenarios. Separately or together they spend time fighting on a bus, barging into a hotel room, taking drugs, creatively using a car wash for privacy, arguing with a would-be john, and stopping at a bar to sing Christmas carols. But it’s the acting that breathes such captivating humanity into their every moment. What could’ve been a flip crime comedy – like every other post-Tarantino 90’s indie – is instead soulful and involving excitement connecting characters who feel completely real and alive. This extends to supporting roles, including a subplot involving an Armenian cab driver (Karren Kartagulian) whose involvement with the main throughline goes in some unexpected directions before reaching an ambiguous, surprising, and kind conclusion.
For a movie provocative in many ways – in vulgarity, frank sexuality, even its loudness – it has this core of kindness. Baker has compassion for every character, and creates a non-judgmental energy that allows them their identity without feeling a need to comment upon it. In an exuberantly dirty fast-paced character comedy, there’s a feeling of matter-of-fact lived experience that’s refreshing. Without dipping into cliché, it’s a message of tolerance. The film is aware of problems involving transphobia and issues of class and prejudice, but never becomes a hectoring or moralizing movie. It’s too open-minded and humane, and too focused on its high-energy, fast-tempo comedy to preach. Baker’s a smart enough filmmaker, and his cast is relaxed enough, to imbed Tangerine’s ideas in outrageously entertaining energy. We follow our leads over the course of one crazy day, overlapping arguments and conflicts building to a dizzying emotional climax, then falling into a hard-fought quiet. As hilarious as it is heartfelt, this is a great argument for telling stories from diverse perspectives.