A dazzling, vibrant, candy-coloured Los Angeles farce that runs a brisk 88 minutes, distinguished by propulsive, almost video game-like camerawork and fleabag location photography. Now, I could be describing the 2006 Neveldine/Taylor actioner Crank, and while that is an excellent (if highly, highly problematic) movie, the one I’m actually talking about is Sean Baker’s magnificent fifth film Tangerine. But the similarities between those two films are strictly formal: while Crank is chiefly concerned with being a ribald, hyperactive B-movie cartoon that thrives on never stopping for anything under any circumstances, Tangerine injects moments of vulnerability and quietude among the world of chaos that its characters inhabit.
This is a sex comedy, but not in the way you might think it. In a classical offering from the Boner Jam era, the comedy comes from the charmingly bumbling hero/ine’s Quest for Sex. In Tangerine, the comedy happens around said quest, but in a decidedly more adult context: the protagonists are two trans sex workers (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, both great) in the middle of a hectic Christmas Eve seemingly 100% composed of shitty boyfriends, even shittier johns, and wacky mistaken-identity hijinks. Given the subject matter and tone Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch engage with, there’s a risk of Tangerine falling prey to either trivialisation or sensationalism. Thankfully, there is some deft tonal juggling going on that keeps Tangerine from becoming an exploitative Jerry Springer-esque comedy of errors about the down-and-out denizens of West Hollywood. Every time the film risks becoming too casual or aloof about itself, there’s a moment of starkness or vulnerability (i.e. everything at the club, or the amazing final sequence) that strengthens and deepens the story. There’s a naturalism to how this film handles its emotional highs and lows that lends it great power.
The key to film’s naturalism partially involves what it was shot with. Using three iPhones and a 13-dollar filtering app here instead of traditional film cameras of even DSLRs isn’t just a gimmick or a budgetary concern: there’s an intimacy and rawness that a phone can capture that a giant camera rig simply can’t. The performances here all benefit from this: the actors are all loose and confident, talking and yelling over and around each other as if we’ve caught all these people simply existing. Baker and his cast have basically given these characters a third dimension through form and craft. Thus, the film feels more lived-in and real, which in turn makes the jokes funnier, and the moments of tenderness more poignant. This is a vital, galvanizing piece of cinema, full stop.