The movie centers on two friends, transgender sex workers Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), as they tear through the streets of LA on Christmas Eve. Alexandra accidentally lets it slip to Sin-Dee, who just did a monthlong jail stint, that her pimp and drug-dealer boyfriend (James Ransone) has been cheating on her with a woman. That's all Sin-Dee needs to hear to go on the warpath, harassing people and kicking in doors as she tracks down the "fish" who's been creeping with her man.
Although the movie is set in the dark underbelly of Los Angeles, where skeevy orgies with hookers and johns go on in dingy motel rooms, this definitely isn't a depressing cautionary tale. Most everything in the primarily sunny film is played for laughs. Rodriguez and Taylor have a bickering chemistry that makes them look like a trans comedy team in the making.
Co-writer and director Sean Baker shows that these down-and-out characters are people like everyone else, equally capable of having eventful, endlessly absurd bad days. The movie reaches screwball heights in the noisy, hilariously profane final half-hour, as Sin-Dee confronts her boyfriend at a donut shop, along with his crack-carrying side action (Mickey O'Hagan), whom Sin-Dee has basically kidnapped and manhandled all day.
With Tangerine, Baker has earned his spot in the continually brewing film versus digital battle. He shot the movie with three iPhones and used the FiLMiC Pro video app to make everything look focused and polished. And you know what? It doesn't look all that bad. It certainly works for a guerilla, slice-of-life production like this.
The movie buzzes with kinetic cinema-vérité energy as the camera frantically follows—or, shall we say, tries to catch up with—our lead characters, who are always on the go and don't have the time or desire to stop and explain their actions.
While the filming may be considered groundbreaking, the film itself is just a funny, frivolous thing. Much like Die Hard, Gremlins or most anything by Shane Black, Tangerine will go on to be a gonzo, offbeat Christmas story for Grinchy people who are sick of watching the usual sentimental yuletide sap during the holidays.
This article appeared in print with the headline "California scheming"