If you see only one transgender-prostitute buddy-flick action-comedy this summer, well, Tangerine is really your only choice. And it's a choice worth making to experience this bold effort to make a 90-minute narrative fill those multiple roles.
We can find plenty of outstanding examples of all those genres — OK, maybe not "transgender prostitute" — with a quick cruise through Netflix. What we can't find as readily, though, is the world where director and co-writer Sean Baker sets his story, the Los Angeles streets of the transgender sex trade, where the violence and drug use endemic to prostitution intermingle with the universal human struggle of figuring out who you are.
The manic Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and placid Alexandra (Mya Taylor) are best friends who meet up for a donut on Christmas Eve right after Sin-Dee gets out of a 28-day stint in jail. Alexandra lets slip that Sin-Dee's boyfriend and pimp Chester cheated on her when she was locked up.
Sin-Dee's anger and her friend's efforts to calm her drive all that follows as Tangerine unfolds throughout one day and night, invoking at times the slapstick comedy of Friday and the subtle (and short) character studies of Slacker. Sin-Dee spends her day chasing down Chester (James Ransone) and his new fling while Alexandra spreads word of her singing performance that night between encounters with johns that end both comically and surprisingly romantic.
By nightfall, all parties involved — including an Armenian cab driver who is one of the girls' most loyal customers, and his unsuspecting wife and mother-in-law — descend on the same donut shop in the film's opening to sort out their allegiances and entanglements. The heart of Tangerine, though, comes in the smaller scenes throughout, when Alexandra faces down one potentially violent john with withering insults, or when Sin-Dee finds the charity within herself to help Chester's mistress fix her makeup, or during Alexandra's torch-song performance of a Christmas tune.
In Taylor and Rodriguez, Baker found ideal leads, remarkable considering that neither had acted before he met them at the Los Angeles LGBT Center. Their chemistry comes through in Sin-Dee and Alexandra's relationship that goes from supportive to antagonistic and back on the whims of the mercurial Sin-Dee.
Tangerine got a lot of film festival attention for being shot completely on iPhones, and for the transgender lead roles. What makes it worth seeing, though, is simply the human story of the evolving relationship between two women as they navigate a life most of us can't even begin to imagine.♦