Filmmaker Sean Baker's raucous and original Tangerine was well received in its world premiere screening at this year's Sundance Film Festival. After the screening, Baker made the film-savvy audience gasp by revealing that his soon-to-be breakout hit was shot entirely on a smartphone. It was the first commercial feature to earn that potentially dubious distinction.
It didn't take long for Tangerine to become known as "the iPhone movie," a calling card that generates interest in the film but doesn't do justice to Baker's work. Shot in a rough and desolate patch of West Hollywood, California, and set on Christmas Eve, Tangerine tells the story of two transgender prostitutes, one of their customers and a pimp, and manages to be funny and life-affirming without sacrificing realism or sugarcoating its characters' circumstances. It's one thing to craft cinematic images with a smartphone and quite another to come up with one of the year's most affecting films.
The story is simple: Upon returning to the streets after 28 days in jail, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) learns from her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) that Sin-Dee's drug-dealing pimp boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) has been unfaithful while she was detained. With Alexandra in tow, Sin-Dee begins a search for the two-timing Chester that takes the pair across the downtrodden but colorful neighborhood and sets up a series of comically thorny confrontations.
Both Rodriguez and Taylor are first-time actors who are transgender women. Baker discovered them at an LGBT community center in Hollywood while doing research for the film, and their indelible performances have been hailed as a breakthrough for transgender actors. Roles like these have typically gone to non-transgender actors, who often win accolades for the special "reach" of their work. (Hilary Swank and Jared Leto both earned career-making Oscars in transgender roles.) Even better is the film's matter-of-fact attitude toward Sin-Dee and Alexandra, who are never made to justify their appearance or gender identities. We get to know them just as we would any other characters in a movie, and that feels like a big step forward.
The smartphone shoot gives Tangerine a look and feel all its own, and it all fits the story and setting like a glove. Baker used prototype wide-angle lens adapters and an app that adds film grain to digital images, and later pumped up his bright colors far beyond the usual — like Christmas on steroids. Combined with the film's fast pace, the techniques generate a kinetic and surreal vibe that heightens Baker's chaotic tale. The great benefit of using a smartphone was its limited effect on the real people of the neighborhood, who felt free to walk through the frame and go about their business when not faced with a large, intimidating camera. That's a level of realism only dreamed about by documentary filmmakers.
Technical and social innovations aside, Tangerine addresses a real-world side of Los Angeles rarely depicted by Hollywood. It also manages a free-spirited and enlightened take on the Christmas movie. It's tempting to imagine future generations returning to the film to cheer on Sin-Dee and Alexandra as part of a new, nontraditional holiday ritual. Tangerine may have just enough heart to pull that off.