Tangerine (Magnolia Pictures, R)

tangerine 75The key accomplishment of Tangerine is that it is able to observe two ways of life without judging or keeping score.




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Several things about Sean Baker’s latest film, Tangerine, set it apart from the usual Hollywood fare. One is that it was shot on a smartphone (actually, three iPhone 5Ss), on what must have been a very small budget. Another is that the two central characters are African American transgender prostitutes. Both facts are worthy of note, but neither should obscure the considerable achievement of the film itself, which at heart is an examination of how families of both the conventional and unconventional variety function.

The action takes place over less than 24 hours, in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve (the date presumably chosen because it’s an important time for family gatherings). As the story begins, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) has just gotten out of jail and is sharing a donut with her close friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor). Perhaps not by accident, Alexandra lets it slip that Sin-Dee’s boyfriend/pimp Chester (James Ransone) has not exactly been celibate while she was away, and in fact has been bestowing his affections on a new girl who is not only white, but also cisgender.

Predictably, that news sets Sin-Dee on a mission to find the new girl, Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan) and wreak havoc upon her. It also provides the film with an excuse to explore some of the less glamorous parts of Los Angeles (with the jumping-off place being the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue). A contrasting story line involving an Armenian cab driver, Razmik (director Baker’s regular Karren Karagulian), and his more conventional family (including a wife, a baby, and a formidable mother-in-law) intersects with the story of Sin-Dee and her family.

The narrative of Tangerine is pretty slight, and much of the screenplay (by Baker and Chris Bergoch) seems to have been developed following the ODTAA principle—it’s mostly just “one damn thing after another.” Among other things, Razmik has several passengers in his cab, a customer tries to avoid paying Alexandra, Sin-Dee extracts information from a restaurant owner, the Armenians hold a Christmas gathering (while noting that their real Christmas is on January 6), and Alexandra performs at a club. None of these incidents are particularly interesting by themselves, but collectively they build up a world and illuminate the characters, with particular emphasis on Sin-Dee and Alexandra. In fact, this film’s approach to storytelling is based on that old saw that character is action—all we know about these characters is what we see them do, but that gives us enough information to understand both them and the world they live in.

Tangerine contrasts two types of families, and more generally, two ways of living in the world. Sin-Dee and Alexandra must constantly create their lives and assert their identities in a world that would be happy to do without them, and the family structure they have created is not acknowledged by either the law or by society at large. Razmik fits into several standard, pre-existing roles (husband, father, cab driver) and is part of a family that is recognized both by the law and by conventional society. The key accomplishment of Tangerine is that it is able to observe both ways of life without judging or keeping score, and it imagines a world in which both make perfect sense.

The technical elements of Tangerine support the director’s approach to storytelling. The iPhone cinematography (by Baker and Radium Cheung) gives the film an immediate, almost documentary-feel appropriate to its focus on action, while a lively and varied soundtrack helps to keep the film moving and reinforce its true-to-the-streets feel. | Sarah Boslaugh

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