Director: Sean Baker
Major Players: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor
Out Of Five: Four
This was the film that came out of nowhere and was the surprise hit of last year’s Sundance Film Festival. Soon snapped up by distributors, it reached wider audiences in The States and then the UK, acquiring a name for itself as different, challenging and breaking new ground. And, as if it’s trying to underline that even further, it’s set on Christmas Eve but isn’t likely to join the traditional list of Yuletide films trotted out on TV each December. Not for the time being, anyway.
The setting is the grim, unglamorous side of Tinseltown, where there’s hardly any evidence of the impending holiday. Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is back in town after a short stint in prison, only to discover that her pimp boyfriend has been less than celibate during her absence. With help from her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor), she sets out to discover the truth, as well the other woman. And everybody’s gonna know about it.
That’s the bare bones of it, but Tangerine is a film packed with individual stories, from the sub-plot involving Armenian taxi driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian) and his family, who have to come to terms with their life in a strange country, to the thumbnail portraits of the individuals who ride in his cab, Mya’s ambitions as a singer and the other working girls on the corners of the flat roofed, soulless town. Or, as Razmik’s mother in law describes it, a giftwrapped city that’s not what it seems to be.
A story involving drugs, transsexuals, prostitution, pimps etc won’t be to everybody’s tastes, but underneath the down at heel setting and portrayal of the harsher side of life is something far more human and compassionate, especially when it comes to the friendship between the two main characters. You’re thrown straight into their storyline in the opening seconds. It might take time to get used to the speed Sin-Dee talks at – something close to an express train – but you get there. What’s clear is that she has strength and isn’t about to be messed around by anybody. Her best friend, Mya, is quieter, more sensitive, but equally resilient and loyal. And when Sin-Dee eventually discovers the truth of the story she’s been told, we see the depth of their friendship, expressed without words.
But the film didn’t make its name because of the subject matter. That was because of the way it was shot, on just three iPhones. And, while that’s not immediately apparent from watching it, it’s the perfect fit for the context and the story. The cameras, such as they are, aren’t there to create beautiful images but to replicate a way of life, one where what’s being used as the camera is also an integral part of the characters’ way of life. Admittedly, there are times when the shots of either Sin-Dee or Mya tottering down those long and unwinding roads go on for too long, but it’s a small point. What it gives the film is a freshness, an unexpected warmth, much of which is borne out of the two terrific central performances.
Released on DVD and online, Tangerine is also film happily suited to the smaller screen – not just TV but the laptop or tablet as well. In fact, given the way it’s been filmed, there’s an argument for saying it’s best suited to the small screen that it first came from. But however you choose to watch it, prepare yourself for a breakneck, fast talking, rip-roaring trip along the mean streets of L A – with more than a stop or two at that crucial business hub, Donut Time – in some colourful company. And, in case you were wondering, the Tangerine of the title is the colour of those L A sunsets.
Tangerine is released on DVD and online on Monday, 28 March and is reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 31 March.