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SIFF ADVANCE: Tangerine - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Directing: A
Acting: A
Writing: A-
Cinematography: A-
Editing: A

Few movies convey so much with such simplicity of storytelling. Not a whole lot actually happens in Tangerine, but each event makes an impact, particularly in the context of the world in which they occur. That is what makes this movie special.

Much has been made on the festival circuit of the fact that this movie was filmed entirely on three iPhone 5s phones. Although that is the least of what makes this movie great, it still bears mentioning. Director Sean Baker used the $8 app FiLMiC Pro, which somewhat explains the many great shots -- God knows no moving tracking shots on the streets could be made with such smoothness using the iPhone's default camera app. Plenty of scenes also feature shaky handheld camera cinematography, but this only lends to the intimate feeling of infiltrating this world uknown to the vast majority of audiences. Plenty of the time, however, the picture looks just as polished and clean as in any hight-budget film. This guy is proving that these days, you can make something with minimal funds and even minimal equipment that looks just as good as anything out there.

But the story at hand makes the manner of its telling secondary. For once, we have a movie about transgender people in which their gender identities is not the pivotal moment of the plot. And like any group, there are all kinds of transgender people, and these ones just happen to be sex workers on the streets of Los Angeles -- and Tangerine presents the world they inhabit. For many, it'll be akin to watching a foreign film, peeking into the lives of people who may as well be living on another planet. But it's their deeply flawed and darkly comic humanity that provide the way in.

The story is straightforward enough: Alexandra (Mya Taylor) lets slip to Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) that her boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) has been cheating on him with "a fish" while Sin-Dee was in jail. We learn in this opening scene that a "fish" is a woman with a real vagina. And Sin-Dee makes it her mission to find this woman, ultimately discovered to be Dinah (Mickey O'Hagan), and drag her all over town and then confront Chester.

In the meantime, Cab driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian) is dealing with a wide range of humanity in his daily fares, until we discover he is a regular client. In one scene that is both amusing and easily establishes how specific this neighborhood is, he picks up a prostitute only to be disappointed she doesn't have a penis. She's on the wrong block, he tells her, and kicks her out of the cab. But Razmik is much more than just this scene, as we cut back and forth from this world to his home life with a conservative Armenian family, and he plays a key role in the climactic encounter involving all of these characters later.

The diversity of the casting in Tangerine is almost amazing in how little attention the film pays to it. It's easy to believe this world exists. Not only are the two lead actors not white, but they are actually transgender actors. There are several white characters, but they are no more represented than any other ethnicity. Even though the whole story is about obsessing over a man, this movie passes the Bechdel test, and features several strong female characters, fish and non-fish alike.

There is often varying levels of uproar over certain types of characters not being played by that type of actor -- gay, disabled, transgender, or otherwise. I never really bought into that; the whole point of acting is to pretend to be something you aren't. The real cinematic utopia will be when gay or disabled or transgender people are regularly playing characters who aren't those things. That said, there's something to be said for the authenticity on display with the use of transgender actors in a movie like Tangerine, which provides a level of nuance hitherto unseen in what remains one of the most widely misunderstood segments of the community.

The themes at the heart of Tangerine are nothing new: love, obsession, desperation, selfishness, and perhaps most of all friendship. The same kinds of stories have been told time and again, just with different characters, people we've seen a million times. This time, it doesn't matter that the story arc is largely the same -- it's the people we're watching that are different. Not different from the real world we inhabit and far too often ignore, but different from the world we usually see onscreen.

Tangerine ends in a particularly bittersweet way, with some unusually raw truth of the experience of these young sex workers with no family but each other. The wigs are pulled off, both literally and figuratively. It's as illuminating as it is touching, and it is not to be missed.

Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez represent a world unknown in TANGERINE.</a>

Overall: A
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