In his cross-generational tell-all, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” author Peter Biskand includes, among many others, quotes from Dennis Hopper and George Lucas about the counterculture takeover of Hollywood following the release of Easy Rider. “We want to make little, personal, honest movies,” said Hopper, a sentiment Lucas put into a Marxist analogy when claiming, “The power is with the people now. The workers have the means of production!” But if Dustin Hoffman, icon of the same movement, is to be believed, things have only become worse in Hollywood. Thanks to the small, brazenly different Tangerine, in limited release this Friday, Hoffman won’t have to wait long to see a revolutionary spirit alive and kicking.
Granted, in 2015, a hot new indie title causing a stir (in part because it was shot entirely on an iPhone 5s) doesn’t have quite the same bolt-from-the-blue impact it once did. Given that creative tools have proliferated far beyond what Lucas could have imagined, stories of all kinds are being told outside the medium of film, which gave up its dominant grip on cultural conversation long ago. That the movies are still playing catch-up to the Internet, and even television, in terms of varied storytelling perspectives is endemic to the financial and distribution models that have defined mainstream filmmaking.
In Tangerine’s opening moments, the boundaries of Hollywood film history are painted with one shot. With its first image, Tangerine uses the scratched surface of a yellow diner table as a canvas for the movie’s floridly cursive credits. A Harry Horlick orchestration plays along so as to complete the illusion of an Old Hollywood cast call, even if you’re unlikely to recognize many of the names. Then, two pensively clasped hands enter the frame, followed by another set opening a bag of donuts. The sequence ends with an elegant black and white title card, accompanied by our first dialogue: “Merry Christmas Eve, bitch!”
The well-wisher is Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), a transgender working girl who’s just been released from a 28-day stint in lockup. Using half of the only money she has on her person, Sin-Dee splits a rainbow sprinkled donut with her best friend and fellow sex worker, Alexandra (Mya Taylor). A slipped word about Sin-Dee’s pimp boyfriend, Chester (The Wire’s James Ransone) brings the hellcat out of Sin-Dee, who proceeds to spend her Christmas Eve tracking down the cisgender woman (“fish” being the trade term) that Chester has been running around with.
Even converted to anamorphic widescreen, Tangerine’s technical limitations weigh heavily on this establishing scene. Shooting back and forth between Sin-Dee and Alexandra in conversation, the scene looks less vérité than it does YouTube, a matter not aided by Rodriguez and Taylor (both making their feature premieres) coming on strong out the gate before settling in. All the better, then, that Tangerine move on from the awkward introductions so quickly, diving headfirst into a daylong trek down the streets and alleys of Hollywood that Hollywood movies don’t think exist.
Sin-Dee and Alexandra split up early, their individual stories running concurrently to those of an Armenian cab driver (Karren Karagulian), and eventually, the fish Sin-Dee wants to gut (Mickey O’Hagan). Aside from local business decorations and calls for good behavior on account of the holidays, Tangerine couldn’t care less that it’s almost Christmas. This is just another day of hustle for all involved, whether that means dealing with rowdy patrons, planning events, or just making sure you’ve got a roof over your head for the night. The frequent jumps between characters, along with the crackerjack soundtrack (which dispenses electronica, sports anthems, and Beethoven like balls out of a bingo machine), give Tangerine the elan and moxie of a movie with only 90 minutes to spare and nothing to loss.
Writer-director Sean Baker (and co-writer Chris Bergoch) wants this world to feel alive, which it always does, though not without compromise. The energetic high of Tangerine causes it to clumsily force the story in certain directions, while negating the impact of some quietly powerful moments by flatly drawing attention to them. As comedy, the movie has spirit, but also dialogue that’s overly dependent on crass charm. As exposé of oft-ignored subcultures, Tangerine is revelatory in its self-assurance. This is not a “teachable moment” movie meant to open eyes and change hearts, where big names deliver bigger speeches: like Sin-Dee, Tangerine demands your engagement up front, and expects you to keep up.
As day (Baker, somehow capturing a beautiful magic hour glow no matter the hour) gives way to night, the events of Tangerine matter less and less, their impact on the characters more and more. Rodriguez and Taylor create a friendship as flawed and harsh as their counterparts often are, the two providing Tangerine its rhythm of five explosive systolic beats for every tender moment of pause. And like most of the characters, it’s Tangerine’s ability to surprise you is that leaves an impression. A carwash blowjob midway through the film could have been a middle finger to traditional Hollywood depictions of race, sexuality, and gender, all three of which it is to some degree. But the way that Baker balances the visual inventiveness of the scene with the sangfroid of his characters and world is what feels most radical of all.
Tangerine isn't without blemishes, but it rarely strikes you as anything less than a stone-cold original.