Tangerine ★★★★½

Wow, this was so much better than I had any reason to believe.

Every Angeleno should be required to view this. It's a breath of fresh air in this dreck-filled year of movies. Tangerine is proof-positive that the heroes of independent movies don't HAVE to be dreary, intellectualizing characters who think about the existential problems of their day. It proves that a movie doesn't HAVE to be filled to the brim with mind-numbingly boring static shots that suggest cheap Bergman or Antoniennui. This breaks all the rules of what makes an independent film a great one, and has fun doing it. It has the raw energy that was only strikingly present in the films of American independent cinema's godfather, John Cassavetes. Exciting, innovative and filled to the brim with as much manic energy as Godard's debut Breathless (and I don't even LIKE that film!) Director Sean Baker's sun-bleached images of L.A. are like Facebook postcards--little snapshots (or should I say, Snapchats?) of Los Angeles in-the-moment and of-a-particular-time-and-place. They're wonderfully ephemeral. And yet, at the same time, they have a hazy, timeless quality to them. The film's visual look--shot on artificially-smooth iPhones with the GoPro App, riddled with Godardian jump-cuts, lit like a garish & electric Christmas tree on speed--reminds us of greater movies of the past. Baker impossibly quotes such genius auteurs as Godard, Cassavetes, Frank Tashlin, David Lynch, Robert Altman, and 2001-era Stanley Kubrick all in the same film, mixing and matching their different approaches to cinema, and creating a beautiful mish-mosh of the urban city in the 2010s: grimy, screechy, transitory, tech-inundated and haunting.

Yet L.A. only provides the backdrop of the film's addicting narrative, which takes place on Christmas Eve and follows two transgender prostitutes: the bombastic Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and her best friend, the cool, calm, and collected Alexandria (Mya Taylor). When Alexandria tells Sin-Dee that Sin-Dee's pimp-boyfriend Chester has been sleeping around (with a "fish", no less), Sin-Dee launches a one-woman manhunt on the bitch who's been sleeping around with her man. Meanwhile, an Armenian cab driver (whose story, at first, we can't connect to either Sin-Dee or Alexandria) is seen taking fares around Los Angeles, reacting to all the crazy shit cab-drivers have to put up with today. (If there's any arguments against the sleekness of Uber, this is it right here.) Their two stories--Sin-Dee's rampage of revenge, the cab driver's seemingly mundane life--converge into one alternately hilarious and harsh scene at Donut Time, the restaurant where the sex workers all hang out.

You'd think with what you see in the trailers, its characters would turn into stereotypical, screeching harpies that rattle off a series of one-liners to make a pseudo-comedy. That's not what Tangerine is at all. It is a stirring character-driven drama about two defiant, powerful transgender women, representing opposite sides of a wholly humanistic spectrum. You have the almost cartoonish Sin-Dee, who's kickin' ass and takin' names. But she's also vulnerable in certain key moments of the film, where director Sean Baker asks her to come down to Earth for a couple of minutes and experience the harsh realities of a modern urban mecca like Los Angeles. Her ridicule at the hands of a couple of homophobes near the end of the film is as devastating a come-down from a comedic character as they come. It breaks your heart.

Elsewhere, Sin-Dee's best friend Alexandria is more sedate, but NOT less interesting. She gives the film its realist weight, the voice-of-reason and the supporting arm that Sin-Dee can lean on whenever she's in trouble or is down on her sorts. I can see it now: there won't be any other touching scene this year than the final, quiet moment shared between Sin-Dee and Alexandria over a wig. This movie proves that transgender women (the crucial, often forgotten "T" of "LGBT") don't need to be pigeonholed into didactic movies that preach to the choir "We must accept them!" (Let's face reality: the people who go to see movies like Tangerine aren't being convinced of anything they didn't already know.) By focusing more on tangential elements of the narrative, and by according the transgender women and the Armenian immigrant and the white cisgender prostitute the same emotional weight and grace, Baker proves his artistic maturity through his representation of the multi-ethnic, multi-sexual, multi-lingual realities of today. We don't live in a bubble where everyone is white, middle-class, has good jobs, and speaks English. Baker realizes that idea to its greatest potential in Tangerine.

Tangerine is smart because it doesn't limit its focus purely on the transgender women. He focuses on the immigrant experience, too, and the difficulties the immigrant faces in tossing their cultural traditions into America's salad-bowl of assimilation. Baker's power as a director is in the way he conveys this silent struggle through no Kramer-esque words, only humble images. The longest-lasting of the lot is when we see what the Armenian family is eating for Christmas dinner: lamb, lavash, and a 2-liter bottle of Crush Orange Soda. But Baker doesn't make a big deal out of this image; he takes on a documentarian's eye as he details the Armenian/immigrant way of living. Too often, we forget that these people exist. (Sadly, America is complicit in this ignorance, as evidenced by our official recognition of the Armenian Genocide. And I wouldn't be surprised if Sean Baker wrote in the Armenian character as a direct response to the hubbub cause last year over the government's refusal to recognize the Genocide 100 years after the fact). And it takes movies like Tangerine to remind us of their existence, in their own eclectic and fascinating ways.

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