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Film Review: 'Tangerine'

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Since the invention of the movie camera in the late 19th century, filmmaking has seen only a smattering of seminal technical developments. Only the advent of sound and color spawned sea changes in the medium. But in this century, the digital revolution has made it exponentially easier for filmmakers to tell stories. It was only a matter of time, then, before people started filming features using arguably the most ubiquitous technological device of our time.

It would be easy to prematurely dismiss Tangerine as a gimmick. After all, with all the tools of the trade available to film a movie, picking a 4.87-by-2.3-inch iPhone 5s seems not only ambitious but possibly a filmmaker’s folly. Luckily, for writer-director Sean Baker, the phone is a smart choice indeed.

It is the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Two transgender hustlers are in a diner. Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) has just been released from jail. Best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) tries to provide support for her frenetic pal, who has heard rumors that her pimp/boyfriend (James Ransone) has been stepping out on Sin-Dee while she’s been paying her dues. Alexandra herself is trying to promote her singing gig at a local joint later that night. The scene ends with Sin-Dee bolting down the street, her brain a desperate jumble of anxiety and yearning, a woman on a mission to find her philandering mate.

Driving in and out of this girlfriend duo’s life is an Armenian taxi driver (played bravely by Karren Karagulian) who is on his own journey of discovery. He is a recurring john, secretly driving in the other lane, unbeknownst to his wife, child and bitchy mother-in-law, who all await his arrival for Christmas dinner. It’s After Hours in heels, made on a dime.

Especially for mainstream audiences, the film’s first 10 minutes  will be a thematic and technological assault on the senses, making it easy to worry whether the venture is sustainable for 88 minutes. As Sin-Dee and Alexandra walk and talk the streets of West Hollywood, the results are mixed. The sunlight on shoulders and street signs are blown out and the focus at times is fuzzy. But when shooting action, the iPhone adds to the urgency, its jerky lens and inconsistent focus only adding to the urgency and grittiness. (Baker and crew actually used three iPhones to make the movie.) As night falls,  any problems dissipate. Baker could not have found a better topic to match his tool.

The acting is uniformly excellent, even more impressive when one remembers that Rodriguez and Taylor were plucked from the denizens of the area around the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue, which serves as the film’s setting. Baker used their real lives to help write the film (with co-writer Chris Bergoch), which culminates in a beautifully choreographed scene inside the junction’s Donut Time. (Adding to  his work’s digital cred, he also cast other actors off Instagram and found music for the film on Vine.) There is not a hint of the cast’s inexperience, as the leads bring surprising nuance to roles that could have easily been clichés. Particularly moving is a scene where Sin-Dee gazes adoringly at Alexandra as her friend feebly attempts to fill a largely empty bar with her unremarkable voice.

By the story’s end, after we have embraced Baker’s characters, who are full of powerful poignancy and acerbic humor, we’ve forgotten that the film was shot entirely on a device that fits in a clutch.

Luckily for Baker, Caitlyn Jenner’s emergence from her tabloid cocoon has made transgenderism a trending topic. But it’s one thing to have mass audiences applaud a beloved Olympic hero-cum-reality star. It’s another to watch two brassy streetwalkers struggle and strut through a squalid snapshot of broken dreams and blowjobs. But for approximately $100,000, three iPhones, great skill and a whole lot of heart, Baker is able to deliver a compelling, amusing and ultimately moving tale of lives in La-La Land. Often called the Big Orange, Los Angeles, in the hands of Baker, is a smaller, sweeter and stronger Tangerine.


Alex Demyanenko has produced numerous television series and specials. Among his credits is the HBO documentary Bastards of the Party.

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