What: Film Review
Directed and Edited by: Sean Baker
Written by: Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch
Produced by: Sean Baker, Darren Dean, Shih-Ching Tsou, Marcus Cox, Karrie Cox
Starring: Kiki Kitana Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karren Karagulian, Mickey O’Hagan, James Ransone, Alla Tumanian
Language: English, Armenian with English subtitles
Running Time (in min.): 88 minutes
Rating: Not Yet Rated
Official Selection of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival
In 2012, Sean Baker’s third feature, Starlet, demonstrated that facility with dialogue and an innate sense of place could make even the lowest of budgets feel substantial and rich, even beautiful. Starlet focused on an ethereal, kindly pornography star (Dree Hemingway in an amazing debut) who befriended an equally ethereal, kindly bingo-playing senior citizen played by the late Besedka Johnson. Set in Los Angeles, it was Johnson’s only film role, but under Baker’s writing and direction (whose Prince of Broadway  and Take Out  had also hinted at the depths within) the film earned significant notices by some of the country’s most prominent independent awards organizations and cinephiles.
His latest feature as editor, producer, casting director, co-writer, and director is bound for similar spaces first before its inevitable discovery by an even wider, but equally appreciative, audience. Tangerine represents both Baker’s and co-writer’s Chris Bergoch’s most significant ventures into populist territory without sacrificing a scintilla of the immense heart that typifies their work together. Set, like Starlet, in the world of Los Angeles sex work – this time, street-level transgender prostitutes from downtown Hollywood – Tangerine is destined for greater things than the niche market that the over-the-moon 500-member audience of its World Premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival represents (this despite their minutes-long ovation.)
The first reason is that Bergoch’s and Baker’s script is the pinnacle of comic Californian neorealism in this millenium, a contemporary rewriting of the Los Angeleno bards that preceded them: Carver in the further past, Spike Jonze in the more recent (and sometimes dystopian). Here is a film that understands the eccentricity of street speech without collapsing its importance as a dialect, transferring its multi-culti hybridity and the nuances of literal streets – Santa Monica vs. Hollywood, Sweetzer vs. Wilshire – to a universal concept of humor. If Todd Solondz could turn the cynicism off, his screenplays would begin to read like the one so integral to Tangerine’s success.
Our language coaches are two best friends, the aspiring singer Alexandra (Mya Taylor, strong, strong, strong) and Sin-Dee Rella (Kiki Kitana Rodriguez, likewise), who is less than twenty-four hours out of prison thanks to her manipulative pimp boyfriend Chester (Baker group player James Ransone.) Speaking in veritable tongues yet somehow immensely, sympathetically expressive, the girls are more than just hookers with hearts of gold; they have obnoxious penises, too, and they don’t’ mind throwing that fact around for the sake of the jokes. In fact, there’s far more dick talk than the opposite save for a scene with the third principle character, Razmik, a married Armenian émigré (Karren Karagulian of Starlet and Prince of Broadway) so desperate to let his queer flag fly that he pays the local streetwalkers to express himself on them. Family man that he is, Razmik prefers the DL, performing oral sex in the local car wash and hoping his horrible mother-in-law (Alla Tumanian) will keep her nose clean of his business.
The rapid-fire spit takes that ensue are not new for Baker, Bergoch, producer Shih-Ching Tsou, or executive producers Mark and Jay Duplass; Starlet, in particular, excelled in finding comic beats in the mundanity of real life. Yet the dialogue, strong as it is, is (startlingly) secondary to the stylistic fluidity manifested in Baker’s decision to shoot the film entirely on the iPhone 5S. Doubters of this strategy beware: not only has Baker, serving as co-cinematographer here with Radium Cheung, managed to make the film completely visually legible; the entire crew has worked to ensure that this is without a doubt the most significant visual masterwork of completely smartphone-based footage in American cinema so far.
In fact, the use of the cell phone’s camera suits the unfolding of Baker’s most accomplished feature like a glove. How better to represent the story of so many diverse lives on a collision course – though hyperlink-style Babel homage this film is certainly not – than with the most democratic and public of technologies? The result is a film of such emotional verisimilitude and authenticity that it seems unlikely to put even the most politically conservative viewer off. Tangerine, a Christmas Day-set transgender prostitute buddy comedy starring nonprofessional actors, thus becomes an exemplar of that most elusive and beautiful of qualities in independent filmmaking: complete relatability. Massive acclaim, and hopefully, with the backing of the Duplass brothers (who had half a dozen projects together and separate at this year’s Sundance) and the recently announced distribution of Magnolia Pictures, real popularity for Baker and his work will ensue.