It is Christmas Eve and on the grimy streets of Los Angeles transgender prostitute Sin-Dee (Kitiana Kiki Rodriguez) has just been released from prison only to find out from her best friend Alexandria (Mya Taylor) that her boyfriend/pimp has been unfaithful to her during her time on the inside. What follows is a grimy crawl through the underbelly of the decidedly unglamorous side of the City of Angels as Sin-Dee goes on the warpath in her search for answers and vengeance. Much of the conversation surrounding Tangerine has centred around the fact that it was shot entirely on an iPhone 5, with some assistance from an added lens, rendering it an intriguing companion piece to Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs. More of a budgetary necessity than anything else, the low resolution aesthetic is a superb choice for this intimate, social-realist drama, capturing all of LA’s urban decay with a hand-held, frenetic energy that gives the film a sense of palpable energy.
Tangerine is poised to become the go-to edgy answer to “what’s your favourite Christmas film?” and the festive elements go beyond juxtaposing the sun-soaked squalor of the LA streets with the wintry, wholesome Christmas decorations scattered around the city. Instead, Tangerine carries on in the grand tradition of holiday filmmaking as a tender exploration of the importance of friendship in difficult times. The relationship between Sin-Dee and Alexandria is fascinating, and the film bristles with vitality whenever the two are on-screen. Watching them tear through Hollywood, leaving behind them a wake of chaos, is a joy, but the pair also exhibit an intimacy that implies a wealth of shared history. They bicker and fight, but when the chips are down, it’s clear that there is real love at the centre of their tumultuous relationship. Though Rodriguez and Taylor are certainly the film’s stars, and are responsible for bringing to life two of 2015’s most memorable characters, a portion of the film is also dedicated to Armenian cab driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian), a family man with a penchant for what Alexandria and Sin-Dee have to offer. Director Sean Baker is wholly non-judgmental in his presentation of Razmik and finds real pathos in a character who could have easily been played up as a sleaze or a figure of ridicule.
Yet, despite exhibiting a keen eye for capturing on-screen emotion, Baker never allows Tangerine to descend into sentimentality. A sub-plot involving Alexandria singing at a bar avoids the obvious narrative beats whilst still remaining deeply affecting, and the film’s ending offers no contrived lifelines for its protagonists. Though certain scenes suggest Baker might be exploiting his subject matter for shock-value, the presentation of life and love in the most desolate of places makes Tangerine one of the most interesting and charming films of the year.