Tangerine: Sundance darling sparkles in streaming release

In an era of selfies, Snapchats and Instagram videos, it’s hard to fathom why more young filmmakers haven’t emerged from behind their smartphones.

Thousands upon thousands of smart, talented people from all walks of life are documenting their entire youth through bursts of short videos, but few have realized those clips into a fully formed, quality feature film.

Inspiration for this YouTube generation has arrived, though five minutes in, it’s hard to remember that this year’s best independent film was shot using three iPhone 5s smartphones and some Steadicam equipment.

Sundance breakout “Tangerine” takes a gritty and realistic look at the world of transgender sex workers in Los Angeles through the eyes of Sin-Dee, who just got released from prison in time for Christmas Eve, and Alexandra, her best friend. Once Alexandra tells Sin-Dee that her boyfriend/pimp is cheating on her, “Tangerine” takes viewers on a wild cross-town ride following Sin-Dee’s vendetta rampage.

Each element of the film – from the pitch perfect performances by a pair of first time actresses to the soundtrack to the script and the near flawless way it was shot – would be noteworthy on its own merits if it were the single highlight of an independent film, but the way director Sean S. Baker layers them together puts “Tangerine” in elite company as one of the 10 best films to be released so far in 2015.

Within minutes of the snappy, quick-hitting dramedy, it’s easy to forget that the film was shot using three iPhone 5s. All the colors are inflated, benefitting from the same stylistic choice of saturating the film that George Miller did with his visionary “Mad Max: Fury Road” earlier this year.

Each frame of the movie feels like a connected set of photographs taken for a slice of life collection ready for display in some high-end art gallery. Baker’s devotion to raw authenticity can be seen as much in the visual look of “Tangerine” as it can be felt in the performances of its leads, who keep “Tangerine” rising above its low-budget means.

As the antihero Sin-Dee, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez bulldozes through scenes like a wrecking ball, leaving emotional (and sometimes physical) carnage in her wake like an out of control hurricane. Had this role been played by a more famous actor – especially a male one – everything about the performance would have felt false, stereotypical and insensitive. Baker treads difficult waters in writing the part.

But Rodriguez hammers home such brutal honesty that even her most irrational decisions feel genuine and well-reasoned because of the bravado she brings to Sin-Dee. Like Abraham Attah in “Beasts of No Nation,” sometimes it’s hard to beat newness in an actor or actress, and with Rodriguez in her first feature film performance, “Tangerine” hits all the right notes.

Conversely, fellow newcomer Mya Taylor has to play best friend Alexandra with subtly and restraint relative to Sin-Dee’s emotional hurricane, though Taylor’s Alexandra shows her own aggression in scenes where she isn’t running around trying to calm the waters. It’s hard to appreciate Taylor’s work without it being overshadowed by Rodriguez’s tour de force, however.

While “Tangerine” will likely get lost in the awards shuffle amid more high-budget art pieces about the LGBT community like “Carol” and “The Danish Girl,” Baker’s $100,000, iPhone-shot film is by no means a gimmick movie. The raw emotion Taylor and Rodriguez are able to pull out of real life experiences can’t be duplicated by even the best straight actors playing a LGBT part.

The film is helped tremendously by its variety soundtrack, which ping pongs across the musical spectrum from classical to trance and everywhere in between, perfectly matching the sounds with the visual moments created on screen.

“Tangerine” is a story about relationships, love and pain told through the eyes of transgender sex workers in the same way that “The Fighter” with Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale is about family and drug abuse told through the lens of a boxing film. In fact, “Tangerine” feels more like a less violent Quentin Tarantino film shot using smartphones or a heightened version of Franco’s “Spring Breakers” than anything else.

Brash and loud, one of the year’s best films – and an independent masterpiece – has received nearly universal acclaim and after a very limited theatrical run this summer, “Tangerine” can now be seen on Netflix or via other video on demand platforms.

“Tangerine” is vulgar and crass in ways you might expect a Seth Rogen-James Franco joint venture to            be, though the film’s lewdness seems less for shock value than authenticity, stripping away the pretenses that other award contenders will ultimately cloud their movies around. “Tangerine” isn’t about the transition from one gender to another like “The Danish Girl” or TV’s “Transparent.” It’s about real transgender people living normal lives.

We appreciate films for their artistic honesty. It’s why movies like “The Theory of Everything” and “Boyhood” resonate with critics and viewers alike. At the end of the day, it’s about the story and how it’s told, not the cultural differences of its content. “Tangerine” is an honest story well told in spite of its independent background and low budget, and as a result, it’s a beautiful experience.

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