By Andrew Buckner
Rating: **** out of *****.
Tangerine, directed and co-written by Sean Baker (with Chris Bergoch), radiates the spirit of independent cinema. It plays like a wonderful hybrid of the rawness, and unapologetic dark humor, of John Waters. This is mixed with a sharp eye for individual depiction reminiscent of Kevin Smith’s Clerks.
The eighty-eight minute feature, shot entirely with the iPhone 5, could’ve come off as aimless. It ignores conventional ideas of pace. Moreover, the endless profanity the leads hurl at one another could’ve made this repetitive and off-putting. Instead these traits are utilized to give the proceedings a gritty credibility. This is one that is endearing. It results in, not only the best comedy of 2015, but also true slice of life filmmaking.
The story follows prostitutes, Sin- Dee (Kitana Kikee Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor). They wonder the streets of Hollywood in search of Sin-Dee’s lover and pimp, Chester (James Ransone, in an always entertaining turn), during Christmas Eve. All the while a cab driver, Razmik (Karren Karagulian, who is watchable and endearing throughout), indulges his own personal tastes. He does this while trying to keep it a secret from his family.
Much of the humor is derived through Baker and Bergoch’s witty observations. These come in the form of arguments, apologies, brawls and insults. There are occasions when this becomes monotonous and appears added to bulk up the runtime. But, these segments are few and far in between.
Also, it may take some time, as it did with me, to latch onto its spontaneous rhythm. Because of this the first ten minutes had me put off by the style. This is even despite its high-frequency laugh ratio. Yet, it hits a stride early on. It continues with this until the conclusion. This makes it easy to forgive the initial upset.
In so doing, this becomes a wonderfully off-key journey. It is one with characters that are rich and complex. They are also unique and varied. The fact that the on-screen personalities aren’t always likable makes them all the more human and authentic.
Though the humorous accentuation is more reserved for the first half, with the second portion being a focus on the individuals they meet along the way, it remains consistently funny. What is all the more interesting is how effortlessly it makes us roll in the aisles. Still, it never resorts to low-brow slapstick to punctuate its joviality. This is a smart move. It makes the humor all the more winning. Moreover, it makes the picture endlessly relatable.
The frantic use of the music (supervised by Matthew Smith), especially in its repetition of the same song (especially in the opening twenty minutes), while scrambling from one location to the next perfectly captures the chaos incorporated into these bits splendidly. Though the camera always seems to be whizzing around during these occasions, and incapable of settling down, it succeeds. It, inexplicably, helps illustrate the harried immediacy Sin-Dee and Alexandra impress upon themselves while they conduct their search for Chester through the city. It also provides additional guffaws at its high melodrama. This arises when these elements are all thrown into the mix together.
Baker’s editing appears ragged in spots. Regardless, it is strangely enchanting. Yet, the cinematography he issues with Radium Cheung is vibrant, ground-breaking and alive. It all comes together to give a continually fluent sense to the proceedings that is much in its favor.
This is a dialogue driven piece. In a world where special effects often replace story it is refreshing to see a production that is unafraid to engage us with long stretches of speech. For example, there is twenty minutes in the third act that take place almost entirely in one setting. This is a coffee shop called Donut Time. What is intriguing, and an example of the confident risk-taking involved, is that this is all largely conversation based. Regardless, there is not one moment we are not entertained.
But, what fares most in its favor is that there are genuine moments of heart. These are ones that can be as simple as Sin-Dee and Alexandra huddled together on a bus. It is also spied in the minimalistic final minutes inside a laundromat. Even in these more dramatic stretches Baker’s endeavor never betrays the foundation of realism set forth by the dialogue, camerawork and categorizations.
The exertion has a rowdy spirit. Still, it also has many understated instances. These create a terrific balance. It adds a ceaseless air of randomness, unpredictability and fascination. In turn, it helps make Tangerine so wonderful. This is a well-measured gem. It is a reminder that a small budget can still create a charming, full-bodied and sincere. Moreover, one that simultaneously breaks the rules while creating laws all of its own.