Caitlyn Jenner and her glamorous Vanity Fair cover brought unprecedented visibility to transgender women. Laverne Cox, the first transgender actress to win an Emmy, fronted Time magazine, an image of grace and growing acceptance.
The transgender women at the heart of “Tangerine” come from the opposite end of the spectrum — the invisible and maligned. They’re sex workers who troll the streets of Hollywood. Their hangout is an all-night doughnut shop. They keep company with pimps, druggies and the overlooked.
Shot entirely with iPhones, writer-director Sean Baker’s fifth feature is an urgent, intimate look at a day in the lives of two transgender prostitutes. It illuminates Los Angeles’ fringe-living, often unseen characters: the hookers and dope fiends, the late-night cab drivers. They’re so colorfully realized, in fact, that you may not really want to spend a whole day with them. “Tangerine” shows their lives ruled by desperation with few bright spots.
It’s Christmas Eve morning, and fast-talking, frenetic Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is fresh out of a monthlong stint in jail. She and best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) are so broke, they’re splitting a doughnut. As they catch up, Alexandra tells Sin-Dee her pimp/drug-dealer boyfriend was unfaithful while she was away.
Sin-Dee becomes instantly determined to find the woman who did her wrong. She leads a reluctant Alexandra on a mission through the streets of West Hollywood, into Laundromats, strip-mall restaurants and seedy-looking hotels, accompanied by a cacophonous soundtrack that abruptly jumps from classical music to dubstep.
When Sin-Dee finds her mark working in a hotel-room brothel, she drags the crack-addled, shoe-less Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan) out by her hair. The actresses play their roles so convincingly, and the iPhone footage looks so immediate, at times it almost feels like watching a depressing documentary.
Meanwhile, Hollywood taxi driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian) is having a typical day, including a passenger drunkenly barfing all over the backseat. Razmik takes the edge off by patronizing the prostitutes who work the same streets he does. At the end of his workday, he returns to the apartment he shares with his wife and baby girl. On this night, his Armenian-speaking in-laws are their holiday guests.
Baker knew he wanted to explore life at the corner of LA’s Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue, a hotbed of drugs and prostitution, but he found his stars before he found his story. Real-life friends Taylor and Rodriguez have great chemistry together and are naturals in their respective roles. The women’s stories about their neighborhood ultimately informed the script.
It’s a testament to the story, performances, direction and camerawork that “Tangerine” feels so present and realistic, but that’s also what makes it so upsetting. It’s not just the violence or the drugs, it’s the hopelessness. Sin-Dee, Alexandra, Dinah and Razmik are all doing the best they can in a world where they have limited options, and it’s hard to see how things get better for them.
“Tangerine” is rated R. One hour, 27 minutes. Three stars out of four. Opens Friday at the Mayan Theatre.