Director Sean Baker heads in an exciting, fresh direction with his follow-up to the brilliant Starlet, his 2012 film about the touching but unlikely friendship between a young woman and a vulnerable old lady. Using limited visual means – iPhones, in fact – he’s taken to the mean streets of Los Angeles for Tangerine (2015) and in particular those inhabited predominantly by members of a misunderstood transgender minority. The film begins in a diner with prostitute Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) learning from friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) that her pimp and boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) has been cheating on her while she was behind bars for a month. Enraged, Sin-Dee heads out to track both down, with Alex committed to aiding her friend despite serious misgivings about Sin-Dee’s wild propensity for creating a whirlwind of ‘drama’.
A colourful assortment of minor characters are encountered as Sin-Dee’s trawl gets both closer and seemingly further away from Chester over the course of Christmas Eve. It all culminates in a showdown in a late-night donut shop with an Armenian taxi-driver acquaintance – Razmik (Karren Karagulian) – and ‘admirer’ of the girls getting dragged into the messy but often funny exchange.
Co-written with Chris Bergoch, Baker’s new film does a fine job intercutting scenes to mix up the momentum of his meagre narrative strands. Besides Sin-Dee’s search, time is afforded to both Alex’s devotion to her anticipated performance in a nightclub as evening unwinds, whilst domestic scenes of Razmik and his bickering extended family adds further colour. Empathy with these characters is often problematic however, especially with regard to Razmik who carries with him an underlying sense of being some form of predator. The few snatches of him driving fares around are some of the weakest in the film, feeling underdeveloped and with a feel of improvisation about them.
There’s often an abstract, raw beauty to the images. The volatility and manoeuvrability of Sin-Dee’s quest never distract us from a story that is kinetically enhanced and necessarily moving at all times. In this sense Baker’s aesthetic choices positively compliment the narrative rather than try to overpower it with artificiality. The performances in Tangerine might be viewed as unpolished and, at times, they undoubtedly are but the inexperienced cast does a fine job of creating a believable world constructed with raw energy and shot through with rage, bravado, anguish and vulnerability. Most rewardingly, Baker is able to reach down to the emotional epicentre from which the finer details of this fascinatingly unique film can be appreciated, especially in the movingly silent, tender final moments.