Tangerine begins at a breathless pace it maintains for the rest of its running time. “Merry Christmas to you, bitch,” a voice calls out as a donut is slid into view in a close-up of a diner table where Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), two trans sex workers, discuss topics ranging from Alexandra’s estrogen levels to Sin-Dee’s impending reunion with her boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone), after her brief jail stint. But when Alexandra accidentally lets slip that Chester is cheating on her, Sin-Dee marches out of the doughnut shop in a fury and proceeds to stomp around Los Angeles on a particularly hot Christmas Eve, seeking revenge.

From this straightforward setup comes the comedy of the year, albeit one informed by writer-director Sean Baker’s respect for his characters and their social context. Baker does not attempt to modify or define any argot or socially informed feelings for the sake of accessibility. Thus, one is left to pick up on the complicating factors of Sin-Dee’s jilted rage in the vituperative manner in which she refers to Chester’s new girlfriend as a “fish,” slang for a cis woman. Likewise, the film’s nuanced, nonjudgmental approach to sex work can be seen in Alexandra’s solo adventures, in which she views her job they way anyone else in the service industry views theirs: as a series of monotonous encounters with entitled customers.

Nonetheless, Baker also avoids the trap of broadening the narrative to the point that the political realities of trans identity are erased. Cops intervene when Alexandra pursues a john trying to renege on payment, and a silent, uneasy tension between authorities and the trans sex worker speaks volume in the scoffs traded between them. The cops laugh derisively at the situation, while Alexandra bristles at their condescending “charity” in not alerting either party’s family, her sarcastic repetition of “family” hinting at the friction with her own relatives. Elsewhere, the film even makes time for one of the workers’ patrons, a married Armenian cabbie named Razmik (Karren Karagulian). One of the film’s sweetest scenes finds him picking up Alexandra and paying to go down on her in a car wash, the wet thumps of the giant brushes slapping against the car timed humorously, but lovingly, with the bobs of his head. (Razmik is also the the subject of one of the film’s slyest, most subtly confrontational jokes, which upends stereotypes when he picks up another sex worker and is dismayed to find out she is a cis woman.)

Each of these details adds character and context, but the immediate highlight of the show is Sin-Dee. Befitting the film’s screwball pitch, Rodriguez recalls Katherine Hepburn in her comic prime. The actress has Hepburn’s giant stride down pat, that perplexing ability to take steps that look several times longer than her legs, a feature further exaggerated by variable frame rates that lend her gait an even faster sense of movement. Rodriguez also has the same cadence of speech, spitting out a host of profanities with the same clipped, haughty tone that Hepburn used to suggest an arch remove from, and an imperviousness to, the pandemonium she created. When Sin-Dee finally locates Chester’s paramour, Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), she drags the poor woman by the arm all around the city like an AWOL servant being punished for her transgression, and the curses that Dinah lobs at her captor bounce off Sin-Dee like pebbles chucked at a tank.

In recent years, the aesthetic boundaries of the indie scene have expanded dramatically. Sean Price Williams’ abstract-yet-earthy cinematography, the microbudget experimentations of Andrew Bujalski and Shane Carruth, the emerging director/cinematography team of Josephine Decker and Ashley Connor (the best makers of eroticized horror since Claire Denis and Agnès Godard), and many more have effectively torn to shreds any excuse a filmmaker might have to turn in a shoddy-looking feature. Add to these ranks Baker’s and Radium Cheung’s cinematography for this film, noteworthy to aspiring filmmakers for being shot on something as ubiquitous as an iPhone but as relevant for the images they get out of this unorthodox camera.

Filmed with radiant, amber color timing that captures the sweltering concrete heat of the city as well as the red tint of Do the Right Thing, Tangerine turns a liability of its shooting format—lower contrast levels and middling sharpness—into an asset. Colors bleed into one another, so that Sin-Dee’s and Alexandra’s brown and black skin seems to merge with their clothes, and the very background world around them enters into a war in which each party imposes itself on the other. Not only does this give the movie a distinctive look, it creates a kind of visual non-binary, an aesthetic space in which all elements are in a constant state of flux, where even movement is smoother and more detailed thanks to higher frame rates. The look of the film is not merely a gimmick; it becomes an integral element of the film’s larger thematic achievement.

As impressive as the cinematography is, however, the film’s true innovation remains its resolute focus on people marginalized both in the world and in cinema. How radical it is to see a film in which trans characters, played by trans people, perform a comedy, instead of having a sick one performed upon them as so many “progressive” Hollywood films do. The characters of Tangerine are linked by a universal search for love and identity, but the film operates through the specific perspective of its characters. This lends added poignancy to scenes like Alexandra’s performance at a small club, where she has to pay to get up and sing a song in an empty bar but does it to feel like a star if but for a few minutes. (Richly saturated close-ups oblige her by casting her as a classic torch singer.) From ranting at cis women to rekindling friendship with a wig exchange, the characters prove definitively that even if all the basic stories have been told, how they are told, and who gets to tell them, matter more than ever.

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