Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) just got out of jail. She is a trans prostitute who works the grungy streets of Hollywood that you don't get to see too often. While having doughnuts with her friend, Alexandra (Mya Taylor), also a trans prostitute, Alexandra lets it slip that Sin-Dee's pimp/boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone), has been playing around with another woman.
The pair refer to the mistress as a "fish," which is slang for a non-trans woman, so you can see where their loyalties lie. Sin-Dee, not to be outdone, sets off on rampage through Hollywood to find the other woman and to confront Chester about his infidelities. Alexandra, trying to restrain Sin-Dee from getting herself back in jail, has her own issues: she is singing at a club that night and needs to drum up attendance so she can make some non-prostitution-related money.
Throughout the course of this single-day story, Alexandra will come across one of her frequent clients, a taxi driver named Razmik (Karren Karagulian), who hides his preference for trans assignations from his wife and her meddling family, all the while juggling a precarious occupation during the most expensive time of the year: Christmas.
Co-writer and director, Sean Baker, has created a miniature Ulysses for Right Now. Though trans people have been around forever, they have never been a more significant part of the public conversation. Baker takes what could have been a very straightforward, Sundance-y story, and tells it on hyperdrive. He filmed using an iPhone 5s, along with a combination of filters and lenses, to achieve a visual style that is characterized by a soaring, kinetic shots as Sin-Dee storms down the streets with her massive heels and tiny backpack. The film also manages to be lyrical in the most unlikely of places, such as a rendezvous in the front seat of a car as it goes through a car wash. It is precisely this mix of tawdry and beauty that makes Tangerine a unique film from 2015.
Equally integral to the film is the rapid-fire script, penned by Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch, who has worked with Baker on several previous films. Like another Los Angeles movie from the prior year, Nightcrawler, you get the sense that the film-makers immersed themselves in this subculture before attempting to make a movie out of it. As such, the character speak exactly the way you'd expect them to, with endlessly inventive profanity and enough street talk to fill a dictionary.
Rodriguez and Taylor, whose previous credits are either non-existent or minimal, are an excellent pair, hopefully with a strong career ahead of them. It may be unfortunate that trans women are forced to gain exposure by playing some of the only roles offered to them (Laverne Cox's prison inmate on Orange is the New Black is hardly a step up), but if it means that these two can become stars, then so be it. Ransone proves that he can steal the screen in just about anything in his brief appearance as the rowdy, sweet but not too smart pimp. Suffice it to say that the climax of the film, which thrusts the entire cast together at the same time, produce something akin to fireworks. Ransone is a huge part of that.
Tangerine gained initial notoriety by premiering at Sundance, and continues its campaign with a slew of nominations from the Independent Spirit Awards, sharing the docket with prestige pictures like Carol, Spotlight and Beasts of No Nation. It may not sound like the sort of movie you'd typically seek out, but at under 90 minutes and current availability on Netflix, it's tough to say no. You'll be glad you didn't.