By Ray Pride
“Tangerine” is a brash, vivacious screwball comedy of West Hollywood street life, told in the course of several blocks across several hours as Christmas Eve moves from day to dusk to dark of night and ache of heart.
Sean Baker’s masterful, vividly gritty follow-up to 2012’s “Starlet,” shot entirely with iPhones, is also a bold, intimate challenge to mild-mannered contemporary notions of independent filmmaking. There are camera moves you’ve never seen before, but the characters are even more gratifying: The opening line, “Merry Christmas Eve, bitch!” is one of the raucous story’s politest bursts of frank language.
The film could well have been titled “Adrenaline”; “Tangerine” appears to refer to the unapologetically blown-out look of the images. There’s a crunchy, tactile character to the visual style, produced with a few iPhones with anamorphic adapters, special software, a small Steadicam-style rig and a ten-speed bike for shots that swoop and circle his figures as they stride the sunbaked or neon-streaked sidewalks. Baker and his co-cinematographer Radium Cheung extend a partnership in finding new ways to look at Los Angeles, akin to the late Harris Savides’ 2010 double-header of Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg” and Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere”: But its look is integral to the story, a complement to the bubbly, spirited figures on screen. The oh-so-juicy “Tangerine” captures a slice of gleefully grubby, electric atmosphere on Christmas Eve on the streets around Santa Monica and Highland in West Hollywood. Transgender sex worker Sin-dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) returns to the unclean streets after twenty-eight days in county jail and immediately hears a rumor her pimp-slash-boyfriend (James Ransone) has been unfaithful. Not only unfaithful, but with a “fish”: a non-trans woman. Sin-dee and her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) set off on a journey built on concentric circles of walking the street to find out if this transgression is true, crossing subcultural boundaries at every turn. The performances by Taylor and Rodriguez are riotous, pitched at an escalating level worthy of Preston Sturges at his most furiously fulminating.
The most apt formulation of the feel of “Tangerine” that I’ve seen since its Sundance premiere is David Ehrlich’s in Time Out New York: “a Pedro Almodóvar remake of ‘Crank.’” In the most positive sense, “Tangerine” is exploitation filmmaking at its finest, a trashy yet fully alive delight from explosive start to becalmed finish. Baker’s previous Los Angeles-steeped picture, about an unlikely friendship between a porn performer and an elderly woman, was shot through with a drowsy widescreen California haze, capturing a climate without seasons. The Los Angeles of “Tangerine” is a whole other world. “Starlet” is rich with the sort of non-judgmental, near-ethnographic attention to detail that marked Baker’s first two features, “Take Out” (2004), about the nightly rounds of a Manhattan Chinese restaurant delivery man, and “Prince of Broadway” (2008, released 2010), about a street peddler from Ghana who’s liberated, then captivated by a child. All four of his features focus on the characters and performances, giving dignity from outsider cultures overlooked by other filmmakers.
With the intimate, profane and eventually very moving “Tangerine,” Baker continues to illustrate the lives of the economically dispossessed with more elemental empathy than superficially sketched ethnography. Despite the electric look of the film, Baker still flexes a delicate neo-neorealist brush, his and Chris Bergoch’s screenplay wholly without condescension, and no small amount of celebration. (The writers say they drew extensively and gratefully from the stories their actors shared with them.)
Once Baker enumerates them as he has in recent interviews, his influences show through pronouncedly, but they’re well-digested, fully integrated into his own seemingly casual and freewheeling style from his first feature. Mike Leigh, Robert Altman, Lars von Trier, Ulrich Seidl, Ken Loach: put these forebears in a pantheon of intermittently expressionist realists who always insist that they’re showing their view of the human condition. (Of course, each of these men has reveled in caricature at one time or another.)
The zest of “Tangerine” should prompt an appetite for more work from these dynamic filmmakers and performers. It’s farce with heart, drama with soul. It’s also moviegoing Christmas in July.
“Tangerine” opens Friday, July 17 at the Music Box. The red-band trailer is below, offering a fine savor of the film’s look and sound.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.