BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Tangerine is a breezy joyride of a summer movie, like American Graffiti if Dreyfuss and Ron Howard were transgender streetwalkers. Or maybe the B-action film from 1982, Vice Squad, which also featured a prostitute on violent journey through the seedy side of L.A. Both these films share a delirious momentum with Tangerine, as their protagonists cruise through the night intersecting with crazy characters and mayhem. Director Sean S. Baker’s new film taps into all that nighttime energy but its most modern edge is the respect and compassion to gives feminine duo, lifting us above decades of cinema history that have painted transgender characters with grotesque derision.
That’s not to infer that Tangerine is pious or high-minded, it is a movie that is mostly interested in showing us a good time. It’s Christmas Eve in Hollywood and Sin-Dee (newcomer Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is fresh from a 28-day stint in lock-up and she is interested in hooking up with her old boyfriend/pimp Chester. (hang-dog James Ransone from The Wire) When her best friend Alexandria (fellow newcomer Mya Taylor) tells her Chester has hooked up with a new blonde on the block, Sin-Dee turns detective, following his trail from dive to donut shop. Along the way we meet the people a street hustler would meet, cab drivers, johns, and other streetwalkers who call out to Sin-Dee and Alexandria like a Greek chorus. Baker’s sure tone allows the story to flow fluently between naturalistic eavesdropping and boldly garish melodrama fit for a queen. We even get a little musical cabaret as Alexandria pays to play in a little joint on the strip. As pure escapism Tangerine transports us to a orange, glowing California dream seen through the eyes of two strong, beautiful beings passionately on a mission.
Much has been made of the fact that Tangerine was shot on I-Phones and it is a tribute to the power of the technology that it comes off as gritty but not low-tech. (it’s a long way from Pixel-Vision) If anything the format increases the film’s sense of intimacy, keeping the camera up close to the action.
Throughout the night Sin-Dee behaves outrageously. It’s Alexandria’s role to try to defuse what she can and yet doors are kicked down, people are hauled around by their hair and sex and commerce could break out in just about any car or corner. But what feels most radical about the film is that all this transgressive behavior can happen without things being steered into tragedy. Christmas may arrive with Sin-Dee and Alexandria being a bit battered and bruised but Baker’s infectious film is hardly going to deny their right to be sassy and audacious for another day.