'Twas the night before Christmas and all through Los Angeles...Sin-Dee was on the hunt for Chester, the no-good pimp/boyfriend who cheated on her. So reads the very basic premise of Sean Baker's new film "Tangerine", the groundbreaking Sundance film that was shot on an iPhone. But that doesn't even begin to the tell the full story of this raucous Los Angeles romp, which is not only my "Movie of the Week", but the comedy of the year thus far.
"Tangerine" begins with Alexandra (Mya Taylor) breaking the unfortunate news of Chester's infidelity to best friend Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), who has just been released from a stint in prison. Both are working girls - notably of the transgender variety - and the offense is exacerbated by the fact that the other woman is a "fish", i.e. a cisgender female. Determined to reclaim what's hers, Sin-Dee thus sets out on a mission to find both Chester and the fish, in this nonstop tour through Tinseltown and its kaleidoscope of colorful characters.
In the ongoing fall season of "prestige" dramas, "Tangerine" offers a refreshing change of pace. Eschewing all the rules and constraints of period trappings and Oscar-baiting refinement, the film kicks the notion of "prestige" to the curb and gives you drama with a capital D. Indeed, this brilliant screenplay delivers laughs and surprises galore, introducing new characters at every turn, each more uniquely fascinating than the last. Populated with under-the-radar talent, each actor shines with their raw, genuine performances. In particular, leads Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor send a strong message to Hollywood that capable transgender actors do exist.
The authenticity which fuels the cast is truly the hallmark of "Tangerine", which shows a Los Angeles far removed from the images we've seen before. As one character says, "Los Angeles is a beautifully wrapped lie". And indeed, the film goes to great lengths to show the truth of Hollywood as a place for hustlers of all kinds.
Of course, much has been made of the film's cinematography, namely the use of the iPhone 5s camera. In that regard, the "gimmick" pays off big time, completely suited to the brazen attitude that characterizes Baker's filmmaking. And the intimacy it creates allows for complete immersion in the action.
In summary, "Tangerine" is a wild ride that stands tall alongside more mainstream fare. It may not stimulate the mind like an "Ex Machina" and its leads won't be challenging the likes of Cate Blanchett any time soon, but on the sheer basis of originality and entertainment, "Tangerine" is one of 2015's defining films. Even as we may try to separate ourselves from some of the questionable behavior on display, its energy and innovation are as much a reflection of the zeitgeist as any other film this year.