Sundance 2015: ‘Tangerine’ is the type of film that Sundance was created for


Written by Chris Bergoch and Sean Baker
Directed by Sean Baker
USA, 2015

Tangerine is the type of film that Sundance was created for: It is bold, it is something that Hollywood would never make, it is a film liberated from formal limitations and it gives definition to the thrown-around term “independent”. Sean Baker’s latest film revolves around Sin-Dee (Kiki Katina Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), who embark on a crazed search to find Sin-Dee’s pimp Chester (James Ransone) on Christmas Eve in Los Angeles after Sin-Dee learns that Chester has been cheating on her.

Kiki Katina Rodriguez is a delight in her self-delusional and loud performance as Sin-Dee. She runs around cussing out everyone in sight in a fashion that invites laughter from the audience, but is given moments of drama that require pure empathy that she brings across in a natural way. Consider when she does the makeup for Dinah (the woman that Chester has been cheating with) in one scene, there’s genuine sympathy and understanding between the two that has evaded the film previously.

Mya Taylor is a bold presence as Alexandra, complimenting Rodriguez’s loud performance with one that is more insightful and quiet than Sin-Dee as Alexandra. Where Rodriguez yells, Taylor feels. The two on screen together makes for an effective blend of comedy and harsh realism thanks to how Taylor balances Rodriguez out. One scene finds her singing a song in a restaurant, which is Alexandra’s shining moment in her story, and Taylor makes you believe that it is her shining moment as well.

The chemistry between Rodriguez and Taylor is tender. While much of them involves them yelling at each other, Baker and the duo still leave room for quiet moments between the two. Even after all the insanity that fuels the film comes to a head, the film successfully switches gears in its final moments to bring the emotions of desperation, affection and loneliness to the forefront with heartfelt filmmaking. Even if the film had turned out bad, it would still hold the progressive achievement in bringing a film together where transgender actors play transgender characters, and even more so, lead transgender characters.

There’s a subplot throughout the film following Razmik (Karren Karagulian), an Armenian cab driver who has ties to the main duo. Karagulian brings an effective amount of desperation and loneliness to the character, so even when he gets what’s coming to him, you laugh but can’t help but sympathize with him at the same. James Ransone and Mickey O’Hagan play their roles as Chester and Dinah largely for laughs, but bring a real sense of authenticity to them that keeps the humor grounded, and the drama deeply felt.

The film manages a tricky balance of not sensationalizing nor overdramatizing the aspects of a prostitute’s life. The ugly moments of it are treated as matter of fact, with Baker’s characters strong enough to carry the audience through the murky waters of presenting it. Baker and his ensemble find the day-to-day humor of it all without cheapening the harsh realities and injustices of life on the street.

Sean Baker’s decision to shoot the film on the iPhone 5s is initially an economic one to keep the budget low and manageable, but a decision that he turns into a winning concept. It heightens the whole feel of the film, providing a manic, borderline anarchic style of energy that the film accelerates on. Each shot carries a sense of frantic energy that is captivating. Baker turns his crutch into his triumph. Tangerine is one of the most genuinely exciting films to come of out the festival this year.

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