Set in the less traditionally photogenic streets of Los Angeles — the ones lined not with palm trees and fancy lounges, but with doughnut shops, car washes and dicey motels — Sean Baker’s sun-drenched, scrappy, vibrant Tangerine follows the day-long quest of Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez). Flat broke and fresh out of prison, Sin-Dee is hell-bent on finding the cisgender white girl that her boyfriend-slash-pimp Chester (James Ransone) has been sleeping with. Her best friend, Alexandra (Mya Taylor), is only willing to come along if Sin-Dee promises there will be no drama. Promise? Promise.
This is clearly not a promise Sin-Dee can keep, but just as clearly, Alexandra knows this. Sin-Dee’s trek across L.A. is neatly interwoven with Alexandra’s hope of bringing pals and acquaintances to her performance that night — it’s Christmas Eve! — and with the story of Razmik (Karren Karagulian), an Armenian taxi driver with an interfering mother-in-law and a series of totally normal, totally weird passengers. Razmik, once he hears Sin-Dee is out, wants to find Sin-Dee, while Sin-Dee keeps hunting Desire or Destiny or Dana or whoever; no one can agree on the white girl’s name.
Tangerine was shot entirely on iPhones, and the resulting intimacy suits the movie to a T: Though occasionally too shaky, the camera can follow Sin-Dee, Alexandra and Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan) into a tiny bathroom, or fit neatly into the small seating area of Donut Time, where all the players eventually converge. But technical cleverness aside, Tangerine practically vibrates with sympathy for its characters, all of whom are vulnerable, beautiful and complicated. There’s never an explanation, a pat backstory, for how they became sex workers or made their way to this red-light stretch of L.A. — which alone makes a great change from those movies in which no one is ever broke or struggling without a grade-A Terrible Reason.
Baker is clear on the way comedy and tragedy fit together and isn’t afraid to show one alongside the other. A bonkers mess of a confrontation can be funny and tragic at once; a person can be big-hearted and full of rage. What starts out as a broad, bitchy, brightly colored on-foot roadtrip gradually draws closer and deeper, until night has pulled shadows over the City of Angels, and it’s very clear that Baker himself is very good at doing two things at once: making a movie that acknowledges the difficulties facing transgender sex workers while simultaneously making a movie about the complex friendship between two women who may have to choose between rent and a cell phone, but will never choose anything but each other.
Tangerine opens at the Bijou Metro Friday, Aug. 14.