Filmmaker Sean Baker’s raucous and original Tangerine was well received in its world premiere screening at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. After the screening, Baker made a film-savvy audience gasp by revealing that his soon-to-be breakout hit was shot entirely on a smartphone. It was the first commercial feature to earn that potentially dubious distinction.
It didn’t take long for Tangerine to become known as “the iPhone movie,” a calling card that generates interest in the film but doesn’t do justice to Baker’s work. Shot on the rough and desolate streets of West Hollywood, California, and set on Christmas Eve, Tangerine tells the story of two transgender prostitutes, one of their customers and a pimp, and manages to be funny and life-affirming without sacrificing realism or sugarcoating its characters’ circumstances. It’s one thing to craft cinematic images with a smartphone and quite another to come up with one of the year’s most affecting films.
The story is simple: Upon returning to the streets after 28 days in jail, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) learns from her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) that Sin-Dee’s drug-dealing pimp boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) has been unfaithful while she was detained. With Alexandra in tow, Sin-Dee begins a search for the two-timing Chester that takes the pair across the downtrodden but colorful neighborhood and sets up a series of comically thorny confrontations.
Both Rodriguez and Taylor are first-time actors who are transgender women in real life. Baker discovered them at an LGBT community center in Hollywood while doing research for the film, and their indelible performances have been hailed as a breakthrough for transgender actors. Roles like these have typically gone to non-transgender actors, who often win accolades for the special “reach” of their work. (Hilary Swank and Jared Leto both earned career-making Oscars in transgender roles). Even better is the film’s matter-of-fact attitude toward Sin-Dee and Alexandra, who are never made to justify their appearance or gender identities. We get to know them just as we would any other characters in a movie, and that feels like a big step forward.
The smartphone shoot gives Tangerine a look and feel all its own, and it all fits the story and setting like a glove. Baker used prototype wide-angle lens adapters and an app that adds film grain to digital images, and later pumped up his bright colors far beyond the usual — like Christmas on steroids. Combined with the film’s fast pace, the techniques generate a kinetic and surreal vibe that heightens Baker’s chaotic tale. The great benefit of using a smartphone was its limited effect on the real people of the neighborhood, who felt free to walk through the frame and go about their business when not faced with a large, intimidating camera. That’s a level of realism only dreamed about by documentary filmmakers.
Technical and social innovations aside, Tangerine addresses a real-world side of Los Angeles rarely depicted by Hollywood. It also manages a free-spirited and enlightened take on the Christmas movie. It’s tempting to imagine future generations returning to the film to cheer on Sin-Dee and Alexandra as part of a new, non-traditional holiday ritual. Tangerine may have just enough heart to pull that off.
Tangerine will be presented by Shotgun Cinema at the University of New Orleans' Robert E. Nims Theatre on Aug. 6-7 at 7 p.m. More info here.