These days, the state of the film industry can be disheartening. Studios are focused almost exclusively on franchises, reboots, and colossally expensive tentpole releases. Mid-budget movies have gone the way of the dodo, and even the “indies” aren’t as independent as they used to be — three out of the last five winners of the Independent Spirit Awards’ Best Film have also won Best Picture (Birdman, 12 Years A Slave, and The Artist), and the other two starred Natalie Portman and Jennifer Lawrence. Few of the more notable independent films in recent years stand for what independent cinema used to be — narratively original, formally daring, possessing a spirit that is totally unrestrained by the Hollywood hit-making machine.
They were once an alternative to what the studios offered, not just a cheaper version.
It’s not that honest-to-God independent films aren’t being made anymore — it’s just increasingly difficult for them to cut through the noise in the digital age, when making a film has never been easier or cheaper. Apps like Vine have turned every user into an amateur filmmaker. Sean Baker is not the first to attempt shooting high-quality entertainment on an iPhone, but with Tangerine, he’s done it exactly right, allowing the flexibility of the camera to capture the kinds of shots we don’t often get to see in a low-budget movie. In most moments, the movie looks absolutely incredible — but none of that would matter if he hadn’t found the right story to tell with his handy Apple product. Many of the characters in Tangerine can’t even afford an iPhone, but there’s something about their ultra low-budget lifestyles that totally gels with the energetic but inexpensive way the film is shot. If these ladies were to decide to document their misadventures on an iPhone, it’d look a lot like this. (That is, if they had some help with post-production.) Tangerine is the story of a friendship between two male-to-female transsexual prostitutes with very different temperaments. The first is fiery Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), who has just spent 28 days in prison and emerges with exactly two dollars to her name. The second is drama-eschewing Alexandra (Mya Taylor), who is currently turning tricks for cash to bribe the bouncer at Hamburger Mary’s to let her perform a small set of holiday tunes. The story starts and ends on a typically golden Christmas Eve in Hollywood — the sun-drenched cinematography aptly underlines the absence of wintery coziness we normally associate with the season.
The plot kicks into gear as Sin-Dee and Alexandra are reunited at the seedy real-world location Donut Time — which, if you’ve spent much time in Hollywood, you’ll know is exactly where these characters would hang out. Alexandra’s loose lips let Sin-Dee know that her pimp boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) has been unfaithful to her. That isn’t terribly surprising news to learn about a sleazy, meth-addicted pimp, but it sure doesn’t put Sin-Dee in the Christmas spirit. She goes on a frantic tear through Los Angeles to locate Dina (Mickey O’Hagan), the “real fish” (AKA, natural-born woman) Chester’s been kicking it with. Meanwhile, an Armenian cab driver named Razmik (Karren Karagulian) picks up assorted colorful characters — you know, the sort of folk who aren’t hip enough to Uber — before his life intersects with Sin-Dee’s mission to drastic effect. This is already more plot than you’ll find in a lot of indies, and that’s just for starters. Baker and his co-writer Chris Bergoch don’t skimp on story, which is just one of several elements that helps Tangerine stand out as a truly innovative indie. When Sin-Dee does find Dina, there’s some outrageous catfight comedy before the film briefly becomes something like a road trip movie, even if the “trip” in question is only a trek down Santa Monica Boulevard to see Alexandra perform at Mary’s. (It’s a beautifully sad sequence.) Razmik’s wife and mother-in-law also become significant characters in an unexpected way, pulling Tangerine into domestic drama territory. Baker moves so nimbly between tones and genres, the film can be uproariously funny and immensely depressed all at once.
Los Angeles is the most overexposed movie star in film history, but Baker’s vision of Hollywood is a world away from what we generally see. These are not the kinds of characters who usually get whole movies made about them, and when they do, they’re often portrayed as tragic figures. There’s a little Christmas misery in store for every character in Tangerine, but Baker doesn’t pity them. They are agents of their own free will, even if their options are limited. If there was ever another choice for Alexandra and Sin-Dee besides the working girl life, it seems to be long gone by the time we meet them here. Tangerine is matter-of-fact about who these people are. They don’t apologize for it, Baker doesn’t apologize for it, and we aren’t asked to feel sorry for anyone. We witness moments of truth and grace from each character (except low-life Chester), but also the kinds of behavior you’d likely find in most prostitutes, cheaters, and drug addicts. These are not hookers with hearts of gold — they’re just hookers with hearts. Much has been made of Tangerine being the first film to premiere at Sundance shot entirely on an iPhone. That’s impressive, but it’s the film itself that’s worth raving about. Mya Taylor turns in a just-about-perfect performance as Alexandra; as Sin-Dee, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez isn’t quite as expressive, but her feisty presence feels essential. Neither of these ladies is a polished performer, but that works just fine for a movie shot on something you might be reading this on right at this very moment. (Performance-wise, the first scene is the roughest — get past that, and you’ll have a good time.) Editing, cinematography, and soundtrack are all top-notch, not just “pretty good, for a movie shot on an iPhone,” but damn good for any movie. Happily, Tangerine doesn’t feel like a film that had to be shot on an iPhone, but one that wanted to be.
Baker previously made 2012’s terrific Starlet, the story of a pretty young porn star who befriends an elderly lady, and starred multiple members of the cast of Tangerine. Both films are nuanced portrayals of characters who would often be looked down on as sex workers, but feel quite different otherwise, especially aesthetically. Tangerine made me excited about the future of independent cinema for the first time in a long time. As indies seemingly get lighter and more studio-friendly, Tangerine dares to be different. Scroll through Vine, and most of what you’ll see is underwhelming, if not eyeroll-inducing; this is what you can really do with an iPhone.