Writer-director Sean Baker’s blistering Tangerine is a truly astonishing piece of filmmaking – and not just because it was shot using three iPhones. While that is clearly a huge achievement in itself, Baker uses that ultra-portable filming device to access the fringes of Los Angeles and shine a light on those human stories rarely given an audience.
It’s told from the point of view of two trans women, Sin-Dee and Alexandra (played by acting newcomers Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor), who work as prostitutes and are spending Christmas Eve stalking the streets of downtown LA on the hunt for Sin-Dee’s cheating pimp boyfriend Chester (a brilliant James Ransone); a quest which results in a tragi-comic final showdown under the neon lights of an all-night donut shop.
Despite its slight premise the film’s appeal is broad, thanks largely to the vivid personalities of, and intense relationship between, Sin-Dee and Alexandra who give the film both its pulse and its heart. They are the epicentre of a non-stop dramatic whirlwind, never giving the audience a chance to pause for breath as they breeze through a series of increasingly depressing haunts: a back alley, a laundromat, a motel room packed with working girls.
But, although the film reveals a side of LA far removed from the city’s iconic skyline, the pair caught up in a relentless cycle of prostitution, drugs, violence and poverty, they are never portrayed as passive victims. While Sin-Dee and Alexandra may have been dealt a losing hand, they are firmly – and knowingly – taking charge of their lives, and have a vivid sense of identity that makes them inspiring and gives them strength.
And that’s entirely the point of Tangerine; it’s not here to soapbox, politicise or even focus on trans issues, it simply follows in the wake of these women as they go about their day. Their compelling energy is underscored both by the gritty, intense close-up camerawork, which effectively conveys the trappings of their situation, and a well-crafted soundtrack, which combines swelling classical chords, staccato mariachi and grimy hip-hop to match the highs and lows of their adrenaline-fuelled existence. Bombastic, organic and utterly original, Tangerine is not just a film, it’s a vital, visceral experience.
UK Release Date: November 13, 2015
This review was originally published by The List