Sex workers, their clients and other Los Angeles subcultures rule the screen in “Tangerine,” a fiercely original comedy from indie director Sean Baker (“Starlet” and “Prince of Broadway”).
It’s Christmas Eve, and besties Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), who are both transgender women, meet at a donut shop. Sin-Dee is fresh off of a 28-day stint in jail and she’s in high spirits until Alexandra spills that Sin-Dee’s boyfriend/pimp Chester has been unfaithful.
Sin-Dee launches on a vengeful rampage to find Chester and the “fish” (aka nontransgender woman) who stole him. Sin-Dee’s odyssey takes her to a Mexican restaurant, a food line and a motel/brothel. As long as she can take it, Alexandra trails behind, handing out flyers for her musical performance later that night.
Meanwhile, Armenian cabbie Razmik (Karren Karagulian) totes customers ranging from a young Asian hipster to a woman with an imaginary dog to a pair of drunken partiers who “spit up” in the back.
It’s curious what Razmik has to do with the trans dynamic duo, but director Baker juxtaposes this steady storytelling to Sin-Dee’s quick cuts and violent altercations. When their stories do coalesce, it feels like a warm reunion.
Alexandra has an unsuccessful “business transaction” and Razmik a failed run-in with a woman who’s literally on the wrong side of the block. There’s a palpable loneliness as the three main characters sift through the big and bright streets of Tinseltown. When Alexandra spots Razmik, it’s the first settling tone for a while, and there’s a relief in their familiarity and mutual respect.
And this tenderness in the urban wild is the lifeblood of “Tangerine.”
In one scene, Sin-Dee’s spent the afternoon tormenting and dragging Chester’s mistress Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan) around the city. They’re in the bathroom, and out of nowhere, Sin-Dee gently wipes away Dinah’s runny makeup and applies rouge to her lips.
In another scene, Alexandra talks about giving her Barney doll a bath when she was a kid. “It stopped singing the ‘I Love You’ song,’ and I was so upset. The world can be a cruel place,” she says. Sin-Dee replies: “God gave me a penis. It’s a pretty cruel place.”
This sets the motivation of these characters and their powerhouse first performances. Rodriguez as Sin-Dee is as fierce as she is tender, a self-described “upper hoe.” Taylor as Alexandra is a homelike heartbeat to Sin-Dee’s roar. And Razmik’s desperation for his “next fix” paints a wary and different picture of the working girls’ clientele.
The music in “Tangerine” offers catchy club mixes by DJ Lightup & DJ Heemie to Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, Op. 62. And director Baker is on point with the execution. Also, props for the iPhone 5s-shot cinematography. Each frame overflowed with the rhythm of the streets and its characters.
And while beautiful, “Tangerine” isn’t for everyone. It’s explicit in its subject matter: sex work. The language is crude, the content is raw, and there are naked people in it. But don’t be deterred. Director Baker captures the pulse of the city’s underrepresented here, and exposes a humor and a heart.
“Tangerine” definitely has a reality TV show vibe in the character’s outbursts, but the moments of juvenile exhibitionism are mixed with poignant and humane stillness that is rarely seen in such a backdrop. This film delicately displays that the white-knuckle brawl is all part of a hunt to be loved. And the last scene is a game-changer in its display of what love looks like.
It’s worth a watch.
Starring: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karren Karagulian
Director: Sean Baker
Writers: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Rating: R for strong and disturbing sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout and drug use
Available: CinemaNow, GooglePlay, iTunes, Netflix Instant, VUDU
More info: magpictures.com/tangerine