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A Big-Hearted, 'Tangerine' Vision Of LA's Crime-Riddled Streets

Kitana Kiki Rodriguez (left) and Mya Taylor (right) (shown here with James Ransone) play transgender sex workers in <em>Tangerine.</em>
Augusta Quirk
Magnolia Pictures
Kitana Kiki Rodriguez (left) and Mya Taylor (right) (shown here with James Ransone) play transgender sex workers in Tangerine.

When Tangerine premiered six months ago at the Sundance Film Festival, it quickly became known as "the movie that was shot entirely on a smartphone." It's the sort of talking point that makes Sean Baker's raw and exuberant ensemble comedy seem a lot more gimmicky than it really is, and it doesn't begin to account for how gorgeous the movie looks.

No matter how many films you've seen set in Los Angeles, the city has never looked quite so searingly alive as it does in Tangerine, which is set over several crime-riddled streets in the Hollywood area, where Highland Avenue meets Santa Monica Boulevard. It's not a part of town you'd probably care to visit, unless you were in the market for a very particular kind of transaction, the kind that Tangerine lays bare with matter-of-fact honesty and disarming humor.

When Sin-Dee (played by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) hears that her boyfriend/pimp has been cheating on her, she sets out looking for revenge.
Augusta Quirk / Magnolia Pictures
Magnolia Pictures
When Sin-Dee (played by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) hears that her boyfriend/pimp has been cheating on her, she sets out looking for revenge.

Set over the course of one hot and sunny Christmas Eve, the story centers around two black transgender prostitutes named Alexandra and Sin-Dee. They're played by two black transgender actresses, Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, who collaborated heavily on the script with Baker and his co-writer, Chris Bergoch.

This is the first time Taylor and Rodriguez have ever appeared on camera, but it would be difficult to imagine a more naturally gifted comic duo, or a more tender and resilient portrait of friendship. Tangerine is a warts-and-all immersion in one of L.A.'s seamier subcultures — and a terrific girlfriend movie to boot.

The story begins with Sin-Dee — that's short for Sin-Dee Rella — hanging out at her favorite spot, a hole-in-the-wall called Donut Time. It's there that her best friend, Alexandra, accidentally drops a bombshell: Sin-Dee's boyfriend/pimp, Chester, has been cheating on her with someone named Dinah. Making matters worse, Dinah isn't a transgender woman but a biological female, which, for Sin-Dee, is the ultimate insult. This leads Sin-Dee on a profanity-laden rampage in search of those who have wronged her. She is an avenging dark angel in a fabulous blonde wig and cheetah-print crop top.

Meanwhile, Alexandra has a few errands of her own to take care of, and while she's more demure than Sin-Dee, she's not one to back down from a knock-down, drag-out street fight when a john refuses to pay up. But she has reliable customers as well, like a male Armenian-American cab driver named Razmik (beautifully played by Karren Karagulian). There may be no more poignant or more honest sex scene this year than the one that unfolds inside Razmik's taxi as it moves through a car wash. It's a bracing image of two lonely souls literally trapped by their circumstances, meeting their needs the only way they can.

As he demonstrated in his previous film, Starlet, about the unlikely friendship that develops between an aspiring 21-year-old porn actress and a woman in her 80s, Baker has an affinity for lives lived in the margins of polite society. Here, as in that earlier film, he pulls you in so close, you can all but feel the heat rising from the sidewalk.

What's remarkable about Radium Cheung's cinematography isn't just the image quality he achieves on an iPhone 5s, but the extraordinary intimacy and mobility of the camera as it chases Alexandra and Sin-Dee from one location to the next. The movie's finest sequences have a marvelous spontaneity, none more so than a terrifically over-the-top climax where the movie's various characters converge — including the elusive Chester himself, played by James Ransone with the same scene-stealing verve he brought to HBO's The Wire.

Tangerine emerges at a moment when the transgender community is enjoying greater visibility than ever, from the Amazon series Transparent to the real-life saga of Caitlin Jenner. Yet to simply lump Baker's film together with other such stories would seem awfully reductive. As played by Taylor and Rodriguez, the characters of Alexandra and Sin-Dee are so specific and so bursting with life that they stand alone, and so does the movie itself, which manages to be at once wildly funny and painfully honest about the everyday degradation and inhumanity that its characters experience.

It's this sympathy for every avenue of the minority experience that gives this big-hearted movie such a powerful sense of purpose. What could have been a raggedy little group portrait somehow transforms, by film's end, into a sprawling and hopeful vision of humanity.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Justin Chang
Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.