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'Tangerine', A Teeny-Budget Comedy That Packs An Emotional Wallop


This is FRESH AIR. One of the sensations in this year's Sundance Film Festival was Sean Baker's film, "Tangerine," which is set in the Los Angeles subculture of transgender sex workers. Much of Baker's script was constructed out of stories he heard from the actors themselves, and he shot the entire film on an iPhone with an assortment of low-cost adapters. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Sean Baker's oblique but boisterous farce "Tangerine" takes its title from the movie's orange hue, which evokes the low, slanted winter sun and suggests a perpetual 5 p.m. It's Christmas Eve day in a seedy section of Los Angeles, to which a motor-mouth blonde Hispanic transgender prostitute named Sin-Dee - that's S-I-N hyphen D-E-E - returns after 28 days in the slammer. Over a shared doughnut, her black transgender prostitute best friend, Alexandra, lets it slip that Sin-Dee's boyfriend and pimp, Chester, has been sleeping with a fish - that is a slang term they use for a biological woman, and white to boot. Cindy's response is to charge out the door, ready to wreak havoc in search of her man and his fish, and she wants Alexandra for moral support.


MYA TAYLOR: (Alexandra) I cannot do this. It's too much drama.

KITANA KIKI RODRIGUEZ: (As Sin-Dee) You're just going to come out here and give me all this information and have me gonna handle it by myself? You're the one that told me anyways. I should have...

TAYLOR: (As Alexandra) OK, OK, OK. I will go with you under one condition - you must promise me that there's not going to be any drama because as soon as there is some drama, I'm outta there.

RODRIGUEZ: (As Sin-Dee) I promise, I promise.

TAYLOR: (As Alexandra) Look at me in my eyes and promise.

RODRIGUEZ: (As Sin-Dee) I promise, no drama, Alexandra. Come on.

EDELSTEIN: "Tangerine" is probably best known as the Sundance Festival winner that was shot entirely on an iPhone 5s with a $7.99 app to boost the definition. That's certainly a great PR hook, but it's important to say that this isn't a primitive work. It's an accomplished piece of filmmaking, shot on the fly, but brilliantly shaped, edited, scored and performed. There are three narrative streams that will ultimately converge - Sin-Dee's quasi-mythical odyssey through LA, Alexandra's attempt to make some fast cash so she can rent the stage of a bar that night to perform her cabaret act, and the cruising - in all senses - of an Armenian immigrant cab driver named Razmik who listens impassively to a series of passengers before heading over to Sin-Dee and Alexandra's neighborhood. Razmik has a wife, child and mother in law stashed in his small apartment, but his taste runs toward the less traditional.

The scenario sounds as if it might be straight out of the Pedro Almodovar playbook, but Almodovar's movies, though emotionally pure, tend to have a campy style. "Tangerine" isn't camp. The LA of director Sean Baker is, well, baked, without being warm. It's a barren, indifferent universe, a place for transacting business. When Sin-Dee finds and roughs-up Chester's little blonde girlfriend, Dinah, it's in a decrepit motel room packed with grim prostitutes and pasty, cowering johns. Meanwhile, Alexandra's first customer of the day tries to run out on her without paying, leading to a garish street fight observed by an amused male and female police officer.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As police officer) Wait a minute.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As police officer #2) Speakin' of classy.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As police officer) Nice.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As police officer #2) Oh, geez.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As police officer) Oh boy, oh boy.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As police officer #2) Have you not worked with Alexandra?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As police officer) No.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As customer) Help - please, help me. Guys. I'm being accosted. Help me. Get off me. Help.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As police officer #2) Here's your chance if you want to go meet him.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As customer) Officer, please help. Help me, officer.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As police officer #2) Alexandra, Alexandra. Alexandra. All right, that's enough. Let him go. What's goin' on?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As customer) This lady just attacked me.

TAYLOR: (As Alexandra) He owes me money.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As police officer #2) Is this true?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As customer) No. I don't even know her. I got out of my car. She just attacked me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As police officer #2) So a random woman just grabs you and starts dragging you?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As customer) Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As police officer #2) Yes?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As police officer) Check her pulse.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As police officer #2) Alexandra?

TAYLOR: (As Alexandra) Girl, what the [expletive]? You know I don't do that [expletive].

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As police officer #2) I don't know. What's happening?

TAYLOR: (As Alexandra) He owes me money, $40.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As customer) I do not owe you money.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As police officer #2) Forty dollars?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As customer) I don't even know her.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As police officer #2) Why does he owe you $40?

TAYLOR: (As Alexandra) He knows me very well. Ask him.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As police officer #2) Is that your green Passat?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As customer) Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As police officer #2) Well, we've seen you cruising around for at least 45 minutes, so you didn't just park.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As customer) I - just, like, 10 minutes ago, I was driving around, I was on the phone, I realized...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As police officer #2) I've seen you - you know what, sir?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As customer) ...I shouldn't be talking and driving. I pulled...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As police officer #2) That's it. That's it.

Why does he owe you money?

TAYLOR: (As Alexandra) We made a business transaction.

EDELSTEIN: There's one scene in "Tangerine" that should be carefully studied by film students. It's a sex scene with no visible sex. Set in the front seat of a cab that's passing through a car wash, you see wriggling strips of cloth, a foaming brush, a pressure sprayer et cetera. You get the gist and how.

"Tangerine" builds to a somewhat stagy farce climax, but by then the pressure has built up so much that merely seeing these people together in one place - Sin-Dee, Alexandra, Chester, Dinah, the cabbie and the cabbie's obstreperous mother-in-law - has you writhing with glee. And oh, what committed players. As Sin-Dee, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez has a gift for fierce, brazen physical comedy. And Mya Taylor's Alexandra is her perfect counterpart - larger, more centered and profoundly soulful. This is my favorite kind of farce, where suddenly, amid the high jinks, the bottom drops out and you see the sadness of these people's lives. This teeny budget comedy carries a world of hurt.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. If you want to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like the director of the documentary, "Do I Sound Gay?" and the director of "Amy," the new documentary about Amy Winehouse, you can find them on our podcast and listen anytime you want. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.