“Tangerine”: Grit and guts on an iPhone 5

by Andrew Kingsley | 10/18/15 6:01pm

Make a film about transgender prostitutes of color in Los Angeles on a shoestring budget. Now make it only using the iPhone 5s, but give it a big screen look. This basket of ingredients would sink most studios, but it was an invitation to greatness for director and writer Sean Baker, whose “Tangerine” (2015) stands as a monument to the indie genre and a middle finger to the cinema giants just miles down the road in Hollywood.

The film opens on Christmas Eve, with the motormouth Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) having just been released from prison. She discovers from her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) that her drug dealer boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) has been cheating with some “white fish” — a cis-woman. She snaps, and like Ahab, monomaniacally hunts down this Moby Dick, Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan). Like something out of “Grand Theft Auto,” Sin-Dee rampages through L.A.’s streets, busting down doors and tearing through a prostitution ring for her pound of flesh. She becomes a bloodhound in heels, and holds a vice grip once she finds Dinah, dragging her through L.A. with a pocketbook tied around her neck like a leash.

“Tangerine” watches like a violent viral video, but has all the fierceness, swag and hustle of a dominatrix to make you submit in sadistic delight. Sin-Dee manhandles Dinah into obedience while Alexandra wrestles a flaccid customer into compensation. Baker allows their personalities to emergein screwball style, but avoids satire or mockumentary — this is less a film about transgenderism and more about two women tearing up L.A. like Tasmanian devils.

Dragged into the brewing maelstrom is Razmik (Karren Karagulian), an Armenian cab driver with a trans-fetish who must hide his desires from his nosy mother-in-law. He pursues Sin-Dee, his princess in the cheetah-print top, back to Donut Time — where Sin-Dee and Alexandra first met up — for the film’s uproarious denouement. Like a multi-car pile up, Sin-Dee, Chester, Dinah, Razmik and his mother-in-law all converge for quite the mad tea party with dialogue so naturalistic it’s hard to believe a script was behind it.

In an interview with Variety magazine, Ransone said that customers often interrupted filming in the donut shop since they couldn’t afford to buy it out for the day. The iPhones, location shooting and perfect casting all give “Tangerine” a documentary feel. Thanks to a few lenses and enhancement apps, the film has the saturation and smoothness of a hip hop music video with the spontaneity and explosiveness of a Vine.

With all the catfighting and shade, there is no room for “Paris is Burning” (1990) moroseness, exploitation or gender agenda — those tubes have thankfully been tied. It’s just one giant drag ball, and gritty L.A. is their catwalk. Perhaps Baker wastes too much screentime on Sin-Dee walking through the streets while dance remixes pound, but her ferocious swagger can make even the most banal sidewalk into a theater of the absurd.

As Caitlyn Jenner becomes a figurehead of the transgender community, we lose sight of the everyday, gritty struggles of the common foot soldier. There are no Vogue covershoots or flowing dresses. As Alexandra reminds us, “All they have is their hustle. And that’s IT!” With women so unflinchingly themselves, Baker’s camera follows in awe of their, well, balls, to make it through a world lived on street corners and passenger seat trysts. But Baker makes us laugh and reminds us that even the most bitter, hotly contentious issues have a tangier side.

Rating: 9/10

“Tangerine” played at Dartmouth’s Loew Auditorium Friday night at 9 p.m.