It’s a fantastic, low-budget, indie surprise, featuring a cast filled with people of color, and two lead performances by transgender actresses. “Tangerine” was written and directed by Sean Baker, who has been making noise on the independent scene for quite a few years now. I finally stopped to listen. The film was reportedly shot, using iPhone 5s smartphones, and on a budget of about one hundred thousand dollars. I love that. It won then 22-year-old transgender performer, Mya Taylor, Best Supporting Female, at this year’s prestigious Independent Spirit Awards, plus the movie was nominated for Best Feature, Best Director (Mr. Baker), and Best Female Lead (the transgender actress, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez). “Tangerine” is the type of film that is routinely ignored by the Academy Awards, and would have been one of the perfect opportunities to eliminate the need for a campaign as powerful as OscarsSoWhite. Yeah…it’s that good.
Sex worker Sin-Dee Rella (the energetic and captivating Ms. Rodriguez) meets her similarly-employed friend, Alexandra (a marvelous Ms. Taylor), at a West Hollywood donut shop, after finishing a 28-day prison stay. Upon being informed by Alexandra, that her pimp/boyfriend Chester was cheating on her while she was away, Sin-Dee sets out to scour the neighborhood and find the offending woman. Encountering her finally, at a cheap motel brothel, Sin-Dee physically drags the sleazy Dinah (perfectly cast Mickey O’Hagan) all over town in a search of the adulterous Chester (a terrific James Ransone). There are also secondary, and beautifully interwoven oblique plotlines, of the transgender prostitutes turning roadside tricks, including one with the Armenian cab driver, Razmik (a superb Karren Karagulian)–who by most appearances is a respectable, hard-working family man. It’s a Christmas Eve that none of them will ever forget–that culminates in the donut shop where the movie began.
There is a centerpiece scene, set in an underpopulated night club, in which Alexandra performs a song. It has a beautiful, raw, tender simplicity that slices through any hint of pretension. And for a film that features violence, prostitution, drug abuse, and hordes of profanity, the final product is incredibly poignant–and even funny. Calling it “real” would assume that I know what this kind of life is like. I don’t. But it certainly seems real, and it’s a powerful experience. Clocking in at a lean 88 minutes, and distributed on a limited release schedule last year by Magnolia Pictures, “Tangerine” exhibits an exciting audacity, and the obvious cool hand of a talented director and screenwriter. It is easily one of the unsung gems of 2015–at least on the mainstream circuit. More folks need to discover this difficult wonder. Don’t be left out.