Tangerine received some attention last year because it was filmed on Apple iPhone 5s smartphones. This was born of necessity rather than a gimmick, demonstrating raw creativity and what is possible with very little. It's not about what was used, but how, and Sean S. Baker’s film is extraordinary.
The indistinct plot is fast and funny, but equally melancholic. We follow a pair of transgender prostitutes over the course of a frantic Christmas Eve on the streets of West Hollywood. Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) has found out her boyfriend and pimp Chester (James Ransone) is cheating on her. She has a temper, she says “bitch” a lot and marches around threatening to track down her love rival. And that’s basically it, but for her friend (Mya Taylor as Alexandra) trying to keep her under control while planning for a club performance and an Armenian taxi driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian) picking up various fares, hunting for Sin-Dee and hiding his fetish for male sex workers from his family.
The frenetic editing, abstract hand-held composition and eclectic, punchy soundtrack power a relentless pace. The largely inexperienced cast of varied characters work it well to their advantage. Kitana stands out as Sin-Dee; much of the film rests with her and it’s a charismatic, layered performance, the challenges of which she rises to well.
The plotting rarely lingers; long shots and short scenes make sure a film that isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste doesn’t hang about and it works very hard. The scenes with Razmik are particularly clever, forming hilarious vignettes with his colourful fares as he circles the area where the girls are. Eventually his story becomes more important and an interesting angle becomes apparent. His mother-in-law talks with another taxi driver, commenting that Christmas feels fake in L.A.. Odd that she should say it as it is only her family in this story who even acknowledge that it is Christmas!
This observation on what is real and what is false extends throughout the story; from the men that need to be women, yet are selling themselves, to their clients; men who are no better, hiding from their real lives. Or their false ones, depending on your perspective. And of course this is all playing out on virtually the bottom rung of society (no attention is ever drawn to that fact). It’s a film not dissimilar to Run Lola Run, without the time-bending gimmick, but it also has its roots in Neo Realism; we are observing a typical day for characters who seem very real. If there is any contrivance in the story it is very well disguised.
If you're looking for something a little different, Tangerine is a terrific choice. First and foremost it's a comedy and a rather oddly sweet-natured farce, in spite of the brutal delivery. Between laugh out loud antics, confident pacing allows ambitious moments of reflection. Take for instance a scene where Sin-Dee is simply waiting at a bus-stop. It’s striking how quiet it is before her patience runs out. Or the poetic ending, with an elegant reference again to the false and fleeting nature of Sin-Dee’s and Alexandra’s existence. A sobering thought in a film that also features a blow-job in a car wash filmed on someones phone.
The DVD features no extras. For a film like this, that's not unusual. For this film though it would have been worth seeing some production features. It was filmed fast and loose in real locations. The story of how it came to the screen might be as interesting as the film itself.