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 nontrans 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.
In the early minutes, you might not be sure what you're watching. Tangerine is 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.
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. The novelty of what Sin-Dee and Alexandra do for a living wears off pretty quickly: What we're left with are simply 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. Rodriguez's Sin-Dee is smaller, quicker, more mercurial.
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 blond 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.
Baker weaves a third player into the story of Sin-Dee and Alexandra: Razmik (Karren Karagulian) is a cabdriver and Armenian immigrant with a wife and young daughter. He's also one of Sin-Dee and Alexandra's regular customers.
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.
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; a tinsel-wrapped pole stands 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. As Taylor's Alexandra sings, slowly and in a dusky moonglow voice, the song becomes 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.