Co-writer and director Sean Baker’s low-budget L.A. indie Tangerine has garnered a significant amount of attention, owing to the fact that it was shot entirely on the iPhone 5S (more specifically three of them, equipped with clip-on anamorphic lenses and handheld Steadicam mounts).
That sounds like an attention-grabbing gimmick (and, to be fair, it’s worked), but it’s worth pointing out that the use of iPhone cameras doesn’t intrude on the film in any significant way (this is no found footage movie, for example) and if you didn’t know, you’d be unlikely to guess. Instead, it’s a lively, heart-warming indie comedy-drama that paints a compassionate portrait of life on the L.A. streets.
Set on Christmas Eve, the film begins with transgender prostitutes Sin-Dee Rella (Kiki Kitanna Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) sharing coffee and doughnuts as the sun comes up over the corner of Highland Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard. Cheerful, upbeat Sin-Dee has just been released from prison and is looking forward to reuniting with her boyfriend-slash-pimp Chester (The Wire’s James Ransone), but she flies into a rage when Alexandra informs her that Chester has been sleeping with a “fish” (a slang term for a biological female), and storms off to take revenge.
Declaring that she doesn’t want any part of Sin-Dee’s “drama”, Alexandra goes about her normal day, picking up johns and attempting to drum up support for her lounge-singing gig later that evening. At the same time, Sin-Dee tracks down Chester’s crack-whore “fish” Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan) and drags her seemingly all over town by her hair, intending to confront her boyfriend with her. Meanwhile, married Armenian cab driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian) cruises around town picking up fares, before deciding to procure Alexandra’s services.
Making their joint acting debuts, Rodriguez and Taylor are both terrific as the two best friends, giving intriguingly layered performances. Rodriguez, in particular, is a veritable ball of energy, her eyes ablaze with anger and indignation, yet we correctly sense that she’s deeply vulnerable underneath her surface attitude. Taylor, by contrast, has the less showy role, but Alexandra is no less capable of surprising us, most notably when she picks a fight with a john who tries to weasel out of paying her.
Similarly, Karagulian is effective as a kind-hearted man torn between two cultures, while O’Hagan makes a lively (and equally foul-mouthed) foil for Rodriguez, and Ransone makes the most of his screentime as Chester, despite making a late appearance.
Skilfully directed and sharply edited, the film feels bracingly original throughout, hurtling around L.A. with an infectious energy and hitting notes of sublime farce in the final act, before pulling the rug with an expertly delivered gut punch. Similarly, the script is refreshingly non-judgmental, finding warmth and compassion in these rarely-seen characters’ lives and serving up unexpected doses of heartfelt emotion, to the point where you suddenly realise you’re watching the perfect Christmas movie. The final shot, in particular, is pure perfection.
By turns exhilarating, moving and laugh-out-loud funny, this is a thoroughly entertaining, expertly made indie that’s unlike anything else you’ve seen all year.
Tangerine is out this Friday, November 13