For award-winning director Sean Baker (“Starlet”), the movie “Tangerine” started with a location.
“As a filmmaker,” he says, “I’m usually drawn to locales that haven’t been shown before on films or in television. I live about a half-mile from the intersection of Santa Monica and Highland. For decades it’s been known as a red-light district. I would constantly pass this corner and there always seemed to be something going on there. There was drama and chaos and I thought there must be some fascinating stories that take place there.”
Working with co-writer and long-time collaborator Chris Bergoch, Baker began to interview the people who live and work there.
”Being a cisgender white straight male, I’m distant from the world of a transgender woman of color sex worker at the corner of Santa Monica and Highland. So, we spent a tremendous amount of time with the research process. We wanted to find people who actually knew that world to help us find and shape the story.”
One of the people Baker and Bergoch found was Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, who ultimately became one of the stars of the movie.
“It was actually Kiki who pitched this story to us,” Baker says. She outlined the story of Sin-Dee and Alexandra, two transgender sex workers, and their adventures on the Christmas Eve when Sin-Dee is released from prison and Alexandra prepares for a show.
Baker loved it.
“It just struck us as something incredibly layered,” he says, “and it takes our characters on an almost mythic journey.” He and Bergoch began work on a script, but quickly ran into a problem: they couldn’t raise enough money to shoot the film.
Baker had an idea that saved the movie. He had recently seen Spike Lee’s “Red Hook Summer,” part of which was shot with an iPad. “There’s a vibrancy there,” he thought. “There’s something new.”
So the resourceful director started exploring the iPhone option.
“The camera on the iPhone is actually higher quality than the camera on the iPad,” he says. “We found anamorphic lenses. We found an app that allowed us to shoot at 24 frames per second and allowed us to lock aperture and focus. I realized I could elevate this to a cinematic level.”
‘Tangerine’ is delicious melodrama
It’s dawn on Christmas Eve in the red-light district of Los Angeles. Transgender sex worker Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is back on the street after a 28-day prison sentence.
Her bff Alexandra (Mya Taylor) buys her a celebratory donut and accidentally mentions that Sin-Dee’s pimp and boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) has been sleeping with a cisgender woman (who they refer to as a “fish”). Sin-Dee sets off to find Chester and his new girlfriend (Mickey O’Hagan) with a reluctant Alexandra in tow.
Meanwhile, harried cab driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian) is picking up fares, avoiding his family’s boisterous Christmas celebration and looking for Alexandra. When the two finally meet, they have sex in his cab as it goes through an automatic car wash.
From there, the action builds to a final late-night confrontation for all the characters back at Donut Time.
Newcomers Rodriguez and Taylor (both trans women) turn in remarkable performances. Both bring a freshness and vitality to characters that might otherwise seem a little stale. Rodriguez is a galvanic force of nature, ruthlessly hunting down her prey. Taylor is a soulful artist with razor-sharp comic timing and a rueful smile. Frequent Baker collaborator Karagulian invests his role with an appealing sense of dignity and decency.
Director Sean Baker (who shares writing credit with Chris Bergoch) handles his cast and crew with confidence and finesse. Shot entirely on an iPhone 5s, the cinematography is surprisingly lush and vibrant. The pacing is sharp and seamless and the screenplay effectively blends comedy and drama into a deliciously melodramatic plot.