“Merry Christmas Eve, bitch.”
Tangerine kicks off its funny, raucous, sweet-and-sour vibe from the first line. Two transgender sex workers are sitting in a donut shop, catching up: Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is just back from a 28-day stint in the can, and her best friend, Alexandra (Mya Taylor), is eager to fill her in on what’s been happening in their grubby corner of Los Angeles.
Like how Sin-Dee’s pimp Chester has been seeing another woman.
That sets Sin-Dee off on a furious day-long tear, searching for Chester and his new lady (“some fish whose name starts with a D”), while Alexandra trails after her, trying to quell the drama. (“It’s all about our hustle, and that’s it,” she pleads with Sin-Dee.)
Their journey takes them through their community — taco stand, motel, food line, nightclub — interacting with pimps, prostitutes and johns. The film also follows another neighborhood fixture, a sympathetic cabbie, Razmik (Karren Karagulian), an Armenian immigrant whose Christmas Eve gets tangled up in the women’s quest.
Director Sean Baker shot Tangerine on location in L.A.’s rundown Santa Monica and Highland area, using just three iPhones. He collaborated with residents of the trangender and street communities depicted (some of whom play roles). As a result, the film is remarkably non-judgmental toward its cast of typically marginalized characters (sex workers, petty criminals, street denizens), granting them the dignity of their experience. It’s an indie film in technique, spirit and subject that thrums with that authenticity.
Nominally, Tangerine is a shaggy-dog comedy, as Sin-Dee looks for Chester, and the film is funny as hell, as Alexandra and Sin-Dee squabble, gossip and throw shade (and punches). But neither actress (both non-professionals) lets you forget that that fierceness and bravado covers up a lot of hurt and powerlessness. It’s a tough life in a brutal milieu, and prepare to be a bit heartbroken, too.
But there’s beauty in the trash: Baker’s camera finds a dirty orange sunlight that gives L.A.’s ugly streets a warm glow, and Tangerine’s characters are brash in their resilient humanity. There’s even Christmas music, including a sweetly sad rendition of that classic ode to lost innocence, “Toyland” (“once you pass its borders, you can never return”).
At its heart — and Tangerine has plenty of heart — it’s about how the friendship of two women endures through a lot of bullshit money and man trouble. Sin-Dee and Alexandra finish out the day as they started — under another fluorescent light, holding hands, and facing the holiday with their rough-and-tumble sisterhood intact.