Tangerine is pure hipster catnip. The story of a pair of flamboyant transgender prostitutes named Sin-Dee and Alexandra, on a comic rampage through the streets of West Hollywood looking for Sin-Dee's two-timing pimp boyfriend, shot entirely on iPhones by director Sean Baker, already has a high probability of being a pre-certified indie sensation on the Sundance-go-round, just on the strength of its ingredients. Even more so when we factor in the notoriety of Baker's previous film, the bad-girl drama Starlet. But we shouldn't let all the hype discourage us — Baker's sidewalk extravaganza has enough meat on its bones to deserve its excited word-of-mouth, with the kind of writing and characterization other "outrageous" projects can only dream about.
It's Christmas Eve in glaringly sunny LA. Sin-Dee (played by newcomer Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), newly released from jail and dressed to kill in unzipped white cutoffs, a leopard-print top, and her finest blond wig, enters the action in third gear, skittering loudly into the Donut Time on the corner of Santa Monica and Highland, on the trail of her mack daddy Chester (James Ransone from Starlet). He done her wrong and she knows it, no matter what her girlfriend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) says. Alexandra looks tougher than any guy in the movie, with a facial structure that gives her a monolithic gravity. When she utters lines like "All men cheat, that's why they're called 'trade,'" it carries some weight.
The girls' search for Chester naturally prevents them from tricking as much as they'd like but they manage to cover a lot of ground anyway, bumping (hard) into Chester's new girl Dinah (Mickey O'Hagan), various hos and johns, a couple of blasé LAPD officers, and a naughty Armenian immigrant taxi driver named Razmik (Karren Karagulian). Razmik has a guilty hobby; he likes to give blowjobs to pre-op tranny streetwalkers in the front seat of the cab. He also has a stereotypical old-country family at home who are counting on him to spend Christmas with them. Worlds are preparing to collide.
Filmmaker Baker and his co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch (they worked together on Starlet) don't exactly score points for originality. The two demimondaines' predicament is as clichéd as that of the web-cam-sex-performer heroine in Starlet. Everyone knows that pimps and their girls are trapped in a vicious circle and act out their frustrations in public. But inside the tight confines of Sin-Dee and Alexandra's world, they're luminaries. The writers' secret weapons, besides the tawdry warp and woof of Hollywood itself, are the high spirited leading ladies, supported by snappy comebacks from everyone they meet, as when Nash the snitch (Ian Edwards) advises Sin-Dee: "First of all, get some Tic Tacs." The tiniest speaking parts — for instance, veteran actor Clu Gulager's cameo as a drunken "Cherokee" taxi passenger — are filled out with loving attention to detail. When you get down in the gutter in a movie like this, you should be able smell it all the way from your $12.50 theater seat.
Would-be filmmakers will be duly impressed with the digital visuals Baker and his co-cinematographer, Radium Cheung, get from their iPhone 5s — evidently enhanced electronically for a sparkling big-screen image. But the cheap production cost and underclass sleaze factor are mere gimmicks compared to the vivid personalities onscreen. Rodriguez and Taylor may never again topline a cast, but when Alexandra goes into her tearful rendition of "Toyland," all the lip gloss and ironic frosted donuts melt away, and the street itself becomes home sweet home.