The time has come to rewrite Jean-Luc Godard’s aphorism: “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.” Writer/director/cinematographer Sean Baker doesn’t even need the gun—just two transgender actresses, three iPhone 5s with fancy lenses, and East Hollywood at his disposal. If all art is political (also Godard), then consider Tangerine as shots across cinema’s bow. Welcome to the revolution.

Tangerine follows two best friends and hustlers—Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor)—along Los Angeles’s sun-drenched streets one warm Christmas Eve day.

Both have business to conduct. Sin-Dee has been released from prison and needs to track down her pimp boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone), who has hooked up with another one of his girls, Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), while Sin-Dee was in the clink. Alexandra wants to support her best friend, but she has a singing gig tonight and wants no part of the drama Sin-Dee is capable of creating. And Sin-Dee can create a whole mess of trouble for anyone crossing her path.

These whip-smart, fast-talking, sharp-as-tack ladies take to L.A.’s streets, buses, and subways to track down Chester and Dinah while passing out flyers to Alexandra’s show, turning tricks when the situation arises and doing it all in killer heels.

Images courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

L.A. is one of the more misunderstood and misrepresented cities in cinema, but Tangerine solves that problem by showing Hollywood’s Eastside as a universe unto itself. The hustlers, the pimps, the police, the Johns, the cabdrivers, even the girl behind the counter at Donut Time all know each other in a vibrant community existing on the margins. When an unsuspecting John (Scott Krinsky) wanders in and gets more (or less) than he bargained for, a typical scene plays out in a wholly untypical fashion with a delightful turning of the tables.

And while the story of two transgender prostitutes is already unconventional, Tangerine takes it to the next level by casting trans-actresses in the role and not just another cis-actor in drag. These women’s chromosomes were miscast in their own life stories, adding an irreplaceable texture to Tangerine. As one says to the other:

“The world can be a cruel place.” 
“Yeah, it is cruel. God gave me a penis. That’s pretty damn cruel, don’t cha think?”

Baker does right by them and matches their content with his form. Shot on three iPhone 5s and made for very little money, Tangerine is instilled with pure electricity. Sin-Dee and Alexandra can carve anyone up with their lightning-quick tongue and cross a city block without missing a step. And Baker hurtles his camera after them, trying to match them beat for beat, blow for blow. The result gives Tangerine urgency, immediacy, and a whole lot of oomph.

If there is a form to cinema, Tangerine is proof it can be broken, it can be changed, and it can evolve. Thank God. There are a lot of movies that are “the movies of today,” but few have ever felt so present.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Tangerine (2015)
Directed by Sean Baker
Written by Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Produced by Sean Baker, Karrie Cox, Marcus Cox, Darren Dean, Shih-Ching Tsou
Starring: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Mickey O’Hagan, James Ransone
Magnolia Pictures, Rated R, Running time 88 minutes, Opened July 10, 2015.

The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 52, No. 51, “Brave new world.”