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‘Tangerine’ Review: Transgender Comedy Takes Chances, and Not Just by Filming on an iPhone

Two appealing newcomers star in this ebullient comedy about a pair of prostitute pals in search of a pimp who did one of them wrong

Gridlocked and indifferently sprawling, Los Angeles is less known for motion than the sitting and waiting the city imposes on its residents. But high-heeled Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) — short for Sin-Dee Rella — doesn’t have the patience to stay put until her prince/pimp comes around. Newly released after a short prison stint, the transgender prostitute spends her Christmas Eve stomping all over Hollywood with her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) in search of the man she loves and the “fish” (i.e., biological female) he’s been sleeping with.

Director Sean Baker (“Starlet,” “Prince of Broadway,” “Take Out”) was reportedly inspired to make “Tangerine,” a continuation of his interest in down-and-out New Yorkers and Angelenos, after observing the patrons of a donut shop in Hollywood’s red-light district. The result is a necessary portrait of a multiracial L.A. as a concrete-surfaced hard-knocks-a-thon where sex workers and taxi drivers chase low ambitions that dangle just beyond their grasp, as well as a hilarious and high-spirited comedy with a dramatic, third-act curve ball that reminds us that there are aching hearts under the quips and weaves.

If you’ve heard one thing about this Sundance hit, it’s probably that it was filmed entirely on an iPhone 5s, with some “circling” shots done through Baker filming the actors while riding his bike, and that it’s one of the rare movies about transgender people to reach mainstream consciousness that also stars transgender performers.

Both bets pay off beautifully. Full of saturated colors — the title comes from the profusion of orange in the film’s palette – Sin-Dee and Alexandra’s odyssey is simultaneously social realism and sexually-charged escapade. Weaving in and out of the working girls’ path is cabbie Razmik (Karren Karagulian), an Armenian-immigrant husband and father who adores the more feminine-featured Sin-Dee, but doesn’t mind rolling through the car wash (if you know what I mean) with Alexandra as a backup when the two women briefly separate.

While the lisping Sin-Dee interrogates everyone she knows to track down her boyfriend’s new fling, the primmer Alexandra leaves each acquaintance with a flyer for her show later that evening. Sin-Dee isn’t exactly likable – she knocks a tray of food out of an interrogee’s hands after he’s just received it from a homeless shelter for not answering her questions fast enough — but Alexandra knows that she’s the plainer and less charismatic (if also the more balanced) one between them.

tangerine2Fledgling actresses both, Rodriguez and Taylor aren’t naturals in front of the camera. But they create a totally believable friendship on screen, aided by improvisations in their own way of speaking to Baker and Chris Bergoch’s solidly structured script. That emotional resonance is amplified by convincing true-to-life details about the characters’ hand-to-mouth existence. The opening scene, in which the two friends share a Christmas Eve donut because they’re too broke to afford one for each of them, unsentimentally suggests the high-wire act that making a living on the streets can be without the film ever slowing down its electronica-soundtracked strut.

After finally locating her romantic rival, Sin-Dee drags the disheveled, one-sandaled Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan) around LA by the hair. But like a dog that’s finally cornered a squirrel, she isn’t sure of what to do with her newfound dominance. Her uncertainty becomes a source of finely wrought suspense, while her emotional myopia comes into crucial scrutiny.

The film bustles along through a series of reveals – a storytelling technique that can lose an audience’s sympathy or suspension of disbelief pretty fast, but which works flawlessly here because the filmmakers and the performers know exactly who their characters are and what kind of world they live in. It’s not long before Razmik’s mother-in-law discovers what the cab driver is off to when he leaves his family to drive around L.A. on the night of Christmas Eve. But the real Big Secret is exposed later — and threatens to melt down the film’s emotional core.

Los Angeles is a “beautifully wrapped lie,” curses one of the characters, but “Tangerine” offers truths at their most compelling.