“LA is a beautifully wrapped up lie,” remarks one woman as she stares out upon Santa Monica Boulevard towards the end of Tangerine. Considering its many popular stereotypes, she certainly has a point. The Los Angeles we invariably see sketched in film and TV is a cultural and creative wonderland, populated by actors, waiters and wannabes whose dreams almost always come true. Its sun-kissed streets are a yellow-brick-road, which pave the way to sky-lighted studios that stand as the living embodiment of the Emerald City.
Seen through Sean Baker’s eyes, however, Los Angeles is about as close to paradise as Dorothy’s Kansas was after the tornado hit it. The director may bathe his LA in bold, saturated colour, but the beauty it imbues is simply a cloak that belies the brutality of what life is like living in this City of Angels.
It is this sordidly forbidding environment that Baker engrosses us within at the start of Tangerine. We open on the image of a bright yellow table top beset with scratches and burn marks from previously stubbed out cigarettes, which is then adorned with a glazed ring donut covered in artificial icing and putridly coloured sprinkles; a compositive snapshot of LA’s sleazy and synthetic reality.
At the table sit Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), two transsexual hookers who hustle in the local area. It’s Christmas Eve, although you wouldn’t know it given the blazing heat outside, and the pair is celebrating Sin-Dee’s recent release from jail. Their festivities are cut short, however, after Alexandra inadvertently reveals that Sin-Dee’s beau Chester (James Ransome) has been cheating on her with a “white fish” (read: Caucasian female) whilst she’s been inside. Devastated, Sin-Dee bursts out onto the streets and begins to tear through Tinseltown, searching for the pimp who has broken her heart.Shot solely, believe it or not, by Baker and his co-cinematographer Radium Cheung using 3 iPhone 5s, Tangerine is the sort of invigorating indie treat you wish you were able to gorge on more often. Fizzing and popping with the sort of ferocity and forceful potency that leaves your head spinning and heart beating nineteen to the dozen, it’s a bruising, but blissfully brilliant bitch slap of a film.
Charting Sin-Dee’s raucously rampant progress, Baker barely finds time to let up. His predominately shaky, handheld lens captures the action as she heads from debauched prostitute parties to dingy Hollywood dive bars, with a raw and dynamic energy that’s synthesised with a seething, ear-shattering score. Sin-Dee’s mercurial temperament, magnificently embodied by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez (who, like the equally as excellent Mya Taylor, is a non-professional who proves herself to be a natural-born performer), sees her charge through the Californian city setting like a Force 5 hurricane, at a pace that is unforgivably pummelling; it’s not so much a film that repetitively knocks you down, more one that ruthlessly knocks you out cold.
So hysterically unhinged is Sin-Dee’s side of the story, particularly during the first 45-50 minutes, that having it compounded with a subplot involving the exploits of Razmik (Karren Karagulian) – an Armenian cabbie shepherding lost souls around LA – initially comes off as disjointed; the salty atmosphere sitting slightly uneasily next to Sin-Dee’s sugar rush.By giving way to its electric intensity though, Tangerine is able to ripen into a fiercely contemporary commentary on modern America. Soulfully, Baker shows us a side of Los Angeles we rarely get to see. The script makes no qualms about who these characters are and how they make their living, but crucially it also never blithely dismisses them as caricatures. Sin-Dee, Alexandra, and all the individuals that inhabit their world are real people with genuine emotions. And this level of candid authenticity at times makes for deeply affective viewing, particularly in the quietly devastating final few minutes. In its willingness to give a voice to trans street culture, Tangerine is, on top of everything else, instrumentally important filmmaking.
Make no mistake, however, Baker’s film maintains its momentum until the end. Sin-Dee’s rampage eventually brings her face-to-face first with Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), the aforementioned “fish”, and then with Chester; the snappy confrontation between the three of them exploding like a cynical yuletide cracker that’s been pulled with gusto by Scrooge himself.
The sizzling script, collaborated on by Baker and his co-writer Chris Bergoch, stings with scathing sarcasm and a fiery quotability that brings to mind Tarantino’s earlier work; with characters affectionately calling each other “bitch” so often it almost becomes infectious. Astonishing and loaded with attitude, Tangerine is like Christmas come early… bitch!
Tangerine is released in UK cinemas on 13th November UK.