There's probably only one humanist film that opens with the words, "Merry Christmas Eve, bitch!" accompanied by the proffering of a single, sprinkle-dusted doughnut. In Sean Baker's Tangerine, best friends, transgender women, and prostitutes Sin-Dee and Alexandra (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor) catch up at a doughnut joint on the corner of Santa Monica and Highland in Los Angeles, the afternoon light still sizzling outside. Sin-Dee, just sprung from a 28-day jail stay, has bought her friend a single celebratory doughnut.
The jubilant moment doesn't last long. Alexandra has to break the news that Sin-Dee's boyfriend (and pimp) cheated on her while she was in the pokey, with a non-trans woman, no less. It's all too much for Sin-Dee to bear: Enraged, she stalks off to find her deceitful paramour and the hussy who's turned his head. Alexandra follows close at Sin-Dee's heels, hoping to cool her down, although she's distracted by the task of promoting a nightclub performance she's giving that evening. She foists a homemade flyer on every friend and acquaintance she passes, chanting, "Mary's at seven, Mary's at seven!" If she has to hypnotize her friends into attendance, she'll do it.
In the early minutes you might not be sure what you're watching. Tangerine's a comedy, of course, laced with rambunctious, exuberantly ragged dialogue. But by the end, Baker and his actors have led us to a place beyond comedy — you may still be laughing, but your breath catches a little on the way out. Tangerine is lovely that way, and it's of a piece with Baker's two previous films, Starlet (2012) and Prince of Broadway (2008). Baker has already carved a niche for himself, specializing in a kind of microbudget naturalism: He and cinematographer Radium Cheung shot Tangerine on iPhone 5s fitted with special anamorphic lenses, further refining the look of the picture in postproduction.
But even if its aesthetic is unapologetically lo-fi, Tangerine looks like, and is, a real movie. Baker bestows a vaguely regal aura even to the seedier, or at least most nondescript, stretches of Los Angeles. He shoots from a place of love, not condescension or exploitation, and that mindset extends to his characters. The novelty of what Sin-Dee and Alexandra do for a living wears off pretty quickly: What we're left with is just people, negotiating the tricky territory of love and desire, as well as the need to be noticed and recognized. Taylor's Alexandra is tall and elegant, with a broad, noble forehead: Her personality is as outsized and roaring as the big rhinestone lion cuff she wears on her wrist. Rodriguez's Sin-Dee is smaller, quicker, more mercurial; she's given to indiscriminate gestures, but also to generous ones.
Sin-Dee finally locates the prostitute with whom her scrawny, carelessly tattooed boyfriend-pimp Chester (James Ransone) has dallied: Dinah (Mickey O'Hagan) is a wispy, leggy blonde with a voice like a bird's squawk. Sin-Dee drags her, quite literally, through the streets (on foot and by bus), even though one of her silver flip-flops has flown off. Sin-Dee, it seems, has nothing but vengeance in mind. Yet in the ladies' room of the club where Alexandra is set to perform, she impulsively brushes Dinah's pale cheeks with a little powder makeup — it's a glancing moment of tenderness between romantic rivals, a reminder of the uneasy bond that can form when two girls share a weakness for the same guy.
Baker weaves a third player into the story of Sin-Dee and Alexandra: Razmik (Baker regular Karren Karagulian) is a cab driver and Armenian immigrant with a wife and young daughter. He's also one of Sin-Dee and Alexandra's regular customers. We see him going about the regular business of his workday, picking up a bereaved pet owner from an animal hospital one minute, the next railing at the rude, drunken kid who's just thrown up in the back of his cab. For one reason or another, it hasn't been a great day, and he's thrilled to spot Alexandra on the street. She's glad to see him, too: They yak affably as she slides into the front seat, and then head to a drive-through car wash for a quick assignation — the soft, soapy whirr of the automatic brushes, and the rubbery fringe flapping at the windows, make for a surprisingly calming erotic setting.
Tangerine is raucous and bawdy, reaching a half-funny, half-painful crescendo in a sequence that nods to early Woody Allen: Everyone's foibles and insecurities come to the fore, but there's no easy solution for anyone. No one in Tangerine, or in real life, can ever get the balance of anything quite right, but we just can't stop ourselves from trying.
Baker has no interest in cheap manipulation. That's most apparent in the sequence where Alexandra finally gets to perform onstage. She's sheathed in a tight red dress; there's a tinsel-wrapped pole nearby, a half-optimistic, half-defeated attempt at holiday decorating cheer. Only about five people are there to hear her sing, but one of them is Sin-Dee, true to the end. Alexandra's song is the Victor Herbert–Glen MacDonough lullaby "Toyland," a tune that, under ordinary circumstances, may have too much syrup in it. But as Taylor's Alexandra sings it, slowly and in a dusky moonglow voice, it becomes a tipsy fishing boat of a song, a vessel pushing off for parts unknown — a muted anthem for the way uncertainty can also equal possibility. Tangerine is all about possibility, and about becoming. Trans or not, we're all becoming, every day.