We've seen Hollywood in the movies many times over the years, but we've never seen the Hollywood of Sean S. Baker and Chris Bergoch's new film "Tangerine," which was shot with three iPhones, in real clubs, apartments, and businesses located in the area. Production even began on Christmas Eve of 2013, exactly when the story takes place. This is the Hollywood that nobody talks about, the Hollywood of sun-baked sidewalks in December, of late night talks in donut shops and laundromats, and of a pair of no-nonsense transgender prostitutes who spend their Christmas Eve tracking down a cheating pimp and getting their due.
Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), fresh out of prison, reunites with her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor), and learns that her boyfriend and pimp Chester (James Ransone) has taken up with a new "fish," Dinah (Mickey O'Hagan) in her absence. Sin-Dee is outraged at this betrayal and decides to find both of them and confront them. Alexandra agrees to help her, but is more concerned about her singing gig later that night. At the same time, an Armenian cab driver, Razmik (Karren Karagulian), tries to track down Sin-Dee when he learns she's back in town, while avoiding the scrutiny of his concerned mother-in-law Ashken (Alla Tumanian) and the rest of his family.
Rodriguez and Taylor are both transgender women, have history with the Los Angeles LGBT subculture, and radiate authenticity in these roles in a way that I doubt anyone else could. Their lack of acting experience doesn't stop them from commanding the screen every moment they appear on it. Both women are bursting with personality, particularly Rodriguez as she prowls her way around the city in her hunt for justice, demanding redress in a torrent of perfectly pitched dialogue when her targets are in sight. The whole film is designed to reflect their endlessly diverse, eclectic urban universe, full of saturated colors, larger-than-life characters, and manic energy. The style is rough at times, but also infectious and invigorating. The soundtrack includes club music, mariachi music, Christmas carols, and a selection from Victor Herbert's "Babes in Toyland." Significant chunks of the film with Razmik and Ashken feature Armenian dialogue.
All the characters that appear are on the low end of the economic ladder, if not underneath it, but they certainly don't act that way. Love transcends class, race, gender, and sexuality, and a woman scorned is a woman scorned, no matter her chromosomes or her profession. The glimpses of prostitution are often humorous, including a sequence in a makeshift brothel operating out of a seedy motel room. Lonely Razmik, who is at one point frustrated in his furtive search for love by a prostitute with the wrong equipment, often comes across as less empowered than Sin-Dee and Alexandra, who are loud and proud about who they are. The women don't see themselves as unfortunate souls or victims, ignoring those who would try to treat them as such.
If "Tangerine" sounds too unapproachable, I should also mention that this is a classic love farce at its core, the opposite of the kind of heart-rending sob story of oppression and surviving hard times that we usually get with characters like this. It's frequently very funny, as Sin-Dee's misadventures snowball throughout the day, and finally end with the whole cast crammed into a donut shop, hashing out their grievances in front of an exasperated counter girl. And yes, it's also a Christmas movie, in the best way. At the end of the night, after all the love games are finished, the movie takes a lovely, poignant moment to recognize that the friendship between Sin-Dee and Alexandra is the one relationship in their lives that really counts.
A film like "Tangerine" would have never come out of a major studio, at least not in the form we see here, so raw and unapologetic about its characters and their lives. Some may scoff at the rise of the microbudget filmmakers, but they made the Hollywood Christmas of "Tangerine" possible, and its unlikely leading ladies into bona fide stars. And they've opened up new avenues in filmmaking to a whole lot of aspiring directors who will hopefully keep making wonderfully offbeat, unique films like this one.