PARK CITY, Utah — Too often, the focus at the annual Sundance Film Festival is on stars we already know telling stories we've already heard, usually involving white upper-middle-class ennui. But Tangerine, which made its debut at the fest this weekend, is none of those things.
It takes almost no time at all for the movie to announce itself as one of the most vital films at Sundance this year. It opens on transgender prostitutes Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) splitting a doughnut at Donut Time, a real shop in Los Angeles, on Christmas Eve. Sin-Dee just got out of a 28-day stint in jail, and she is anxious to tell her best friend news about her boyfriend Chester (James Ransone), who also happens to be their pimp.
But before Sin-Dee can make her announcement, Alexandra blurts out that Chester's been cheating on her — and with a cis woman. That is all the spark Sin-Dee, who speaks in a torrent of lisp-y fury, needs to send her charging out of Donut Time on a rampage to find Chester. As she tears through the particularly seedy stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard that Donut Time calls home, the screen explodes with a blast of vivid color and angry techno music, the camera swooping past Sin-Dee to take in the strip malls, pawn shops, and liquor stores that line the street. Alexandra, who is as calm and measured as Sin-Dee is a dervish of scattered energy, rolls her eyes and chases after her friend, pleading with her not to cause drama, knowing full well that is exactly what is going to happen.
And at the end of that roughly five-minute sequence, I was grinning with delight.
With a cast of trans actors playing trans characters — still all too rare in feature filmmaking — Tangerine brings a world unknown to most audiences to radiant life with humor and humanity. Director Sean Baker (Starlet) and his co-writer Chris Bergoch treat the fact that Sin-Dee and Alexandra are trans prostitutes as just that — a fact, not a gimmick or a "theme" that needs hand-holding explanation.
Sin-Dee especially is allowed to be viciously selfish. When she finds Dinah (Mickey O'Hagan), the "fish" who has been sleeping with her man, Sin-Dee drags the half-barefoot woman through Hollywood, stopping only for the occasional beating. And, in Rodriguez's hands, we also get a peek inside the hurt and need Sin-Dee tries so hard to hide; we can love her while never, ever wanting to cross her.
Baker and Bergoch are just as humanely unsparing with Razmik (Karren Karagulian), a married Armenian cab driver who has a particular affection for — and, it seems, addiction to — the trans prostitutes he passes by every day on the job. Through Razmik and his family, the filmmakers explore the costs of the lives all of their characters are leading without ever passing judgment on them. Though the acting in Tangerine can be a bit rough, less prone to soulful revelation than immediate action, that became, for me at least, part of the film's marvelously entertaining charm.
If you've heard anything about Tangerine, it's probably that Baker shot the film entirely on the iPhone 5s. That may seem like a marketing gimmick, but Baker chose exactly the right technology to capture this particular story, giving it an immediacy and intimacy that I'm not sure he would have been able to achieve with a more sophisticated camera. Besides, the film looks fabulous. I've lived in Los Angeles for more than 12 years, and yet Baker is able to capture this particular section of the city with a gritty beauty I've never seen before.
You could say that about the entire film, really. It takes characters and neighborhoods most of us would likely ignore or disregard and allows us to regard them anew, harsh edges and all. And that's everything a Sundance movie should be.
Tangerine will open theatrically on July 10, 2015.