Each Christmastime I revel in watching non-Christmas Christmas movies – the ones simply set during the holiday season or featuring an unforgettable Christmas scene, from Meet Me in St. Louis and Mean Girls to Just Friends and When Harry Met Sally. Though Tangerine takes place on Christmas Eve and is filled with many festive greetings (including its opening line, “Merry Christmas Eve, bitch!”), I can’t imagine adding this one to the lineup. While Sean Baker’s story of two transgender prostitutes tearing through the margins of L.A. to seek revenge on one’s cheating boyfriend is hysterical and surprisingly sweet in moments, Tangerine is also so gritty and raw that it’s almost a film worth seeing less for enjoyment and more for its innovative story telling and characters. It doesn’t spread holiday cheer but it does tell fantastic stories of life on the fringe, from various prostitutes and pimps to a cab driver and his extended family.
Instantly the script captures a frankness and sincerity that magnetizes the viewer to two of its characters, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor). Freed from prison, Sin-Dee learns her pimp-boyfriend cheated on her with another prostitute. The dynamic exchange between Sin-Dee and Alexandra about finding this girl (who is comically called by various “D” names throughout the film) leads to the many small plots to follow, which include a fabulous vocal performance by Taylor in one of my favorite scenes of the year. Shot entirely on iPhone 5s’, the film features incredibly close angles of its actors and, as one would assume, has a gritty quality that works in favor of the roughness of the film itself. Tangerine represents what independent filmmaking should be. It showcases new, evocative talent, tells a unique story anchored gracefully in truth, and is shot intentionally with carefully chosen transitions, including a neat use of sound bridges.
Whether or not you enjoy watching the first hour of Tangerine, it’s worth seeing for the last half hour in which the plots and characters literally collide back where we started, at a tiny shop called Donut Time, still on Christmas Eve. The chaos is captured perfectly with languages blending, voices rising one against the other, and a perfect impromptu performance of “Say My Name.” It’s evident why this performed well at Sundance, why it’s on countless “best of” lists for 2015, and how it fits into the dialogue regarding inclusivity that’s been discussed ’round tables all year. Whether or not you’ll want to bring up Tangerine at your holiday feast is up to you.