Review: Shot on iPhones (really), “Tangerine” captures the grit and humanity of LA’s underbelly

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A sticky instrumental version of “Toyland” seeps across the opening credits of Tangerine. But the lullaby’s lugubrious mood is smashed by the first line of dialogue: “Merry Christmas Eve, bitch.” 

It’s delivered by Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) to her BFF and colleague Alexandra (Mya Taylor) in a window booth overlooking the less-than-scenic parking lot of Donut Time, perched in a strip-mall limbo of Los Angeles.

The last thing some people want to do on Christmas Eve is go home to the family. The girls of Tangerine don’t really have that option. They’re tricking on the LA streets near the corner of Santa Monica and Highland. And while it’s politically correct to call them “girls,” physiologically the definition gets a little iffy below the belt. 

Made for next-to-no budget and shot (often beautifully) on iPhones, director Sean Baker’s low-rent, knockout comedy follows these two transgender sex workers in frantic pursuit of their pimp on Christmas Eve, a Navidad far from feliz. Fresh out of a month in jail, Sin-Dee is shocked, shocked to hear that her boyfriend/boss Chester (a heavily tattooed James Ransone, who played “Ziggy” in The Wire) has been hooking up with another woman — an actual, biological female named Danielle or Deedee or Desiree, something like that. So she and Alexandra go tearing around the sunset-glazed streets in pursuit of either pimp or what’s-her-name, or preferably both.

The blonde-wigged Sin-Dee is the hot mess of the two. She’d rather get up in somebody’s face rather than ask a polite question. The more sedate of the duo, Alexandra follows her around out of a sense of loyalty — and also to hand out flyers to everyone they meet, inviting them to a singing gig she’s arranged that evening at a bar. 

The quest takes them through the depressing but cheerfully shot landscape of strip malls (Indian restaurants, gas stations, laundromats) and to a flophouse hotel full of realistic (i.e., unattractive) naked hookers and their pasty johns. (Fair warning.) At times like this, the movie has the propulsive forward momentum that made 1998’s Run Lola Run such fun. 

In a subplot that builds in importance, we get to know Razmik (Karren Karagulian), an Armenian taxi driver who circles the LA streets in his cab, keeping an eye on the neighborhood’s working girls like a guardian angel. Well, an angel who also doesn’t mind having sex with one of them while his vehicle goes on a sudsy ride through the car wash. 

Tangerine may sound off-puttingly tawdry. And sometimes you don’t know whether to laugh at loudmouth Sin-Dee or be scared by her lack of filters. But the movie has a great deal of heart, creating a ragtag sense of community. On glimpsing Alexandra waling on a trick who won’t pay up, a female cop in the squad car turns to her neophyte partner with a tolerant sigh and says, “Have you not worked with [bleeping] Alexandra?” Introductions are promptly made. It’s just another day on the job, on both sides of the law. Welcome to the neighborhood. 

Razmik, Sin-Dee, Alexandra and a bunch of other characters (including the fine Mickey O’Hagan as the pimp’s much-abused girlfriend, Dinah) all converge late on Christmas Eve back at Donut Time. The scene is more chaos than crescendo. 

Director Baker may be aiming for the giddy kick of a vintage Pedro Almodóvar climax. But for all their exaggerations, by now the characters have become all too human. They’re people we’re concerned about, not just comic cartoons. Of course, that may be director Baker’s point, and he ends the energetic, sharply edited Tangerine on a wistful, tender note. The main characters here may not be “real” girls. But the movie they’re in is definitely the real deal.

Tangerine. With Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karren Karagulian, Mickey O’Hagan. Directed by Sean Baker. Rated R. 87 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema. 

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