'Tangerine' is a devastating comedy about sex work with a hint of Rihanna and 'Broad City'

'Tangerine' is a devastating comedy about sex work with hints of Rihanna, 'Broad City'

Like "The Goonies" or Claude McKay's "Home To Harlem," Sean Baker's "Tangerine" is pretty much a frenzied remix of "The Odyssey." Here, a journey-back-to-a-partner tale is bent into a picaresque sprint through Los Angeles with fresh-outta-jail trans woman sex worker Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) unwisely searching for her pimp Chester (James Ransone), a Jesse Pinkman-esque asshole, so that she can confront him about the fact that he's fucking some white woman named Dinah (Mickey O'Hagan). On the way to find Chester, Sin-Dee locates and literally drags Dinah across town with her. Sin-Dee is frequently consulting her friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor), also a sex worker and a voice of reason and the silent conscience amid the movie's moment-to-moment chaos. There is also a subplot, that's never more than tangentially related to the primary plot, about Razmik (Karren Karagulian), a cab driver in lust with Sin-Dee. Razmik's regular guy-ness is one of the many ways "Tangerine" presents sex work as ordinary rather than something to gawk at.

Visually, "Tangerine," which was shot using an iPhone 5S, recalls recent subversive pop art music videos, like Kendrick Lamar's 'King Kunta' (shot in a higher-than-wider iPhone aspect ratio) and 'Alright,' or by way of the comedic abuse white girl Dinah endures and the movie's refusal to worry about white feelings, Rihanna's 'Bitch Better Have My Money' (fortunately, it lacks that video's glib nihilism). It is also "Broad City"-like in it that it too is an unflinching comedy about intense female companionship. It's breezy like a music video or sitcom, too. "Tangerine" hits the ground running. Don't listen close enough and you'll miss the inciting incident when in the first scene, over one donut, Alexanda accidentally reveals that Chester is cheating on Sin-Dee, which sends Sin-Dee on her odyssey.

Way too big of a deal has been made about certain production elements of "Tangerine." That it was shot using an iPhone does gives the movie its energy and a slightly surreal quality, but this is really just the logical extension of things like Dogme 95 and before that the story of Robert Rodriguez's "El Mariachi," so this is just the latest a-lot-with-a-little indie filmmaker tale. That praise has been heaped upon Baker for casting trans women to, well, play trans women is similarly overblown. It is an important gesture and the movie just wouldn't work without Kitana Kiki Rodriguez at the center, but it just doesn't parse to praise a movie for its underground DIY ethos of shooting with an iPhone and then also praise it for being intersectional in a fairly basic way, you know? Instead, praise this chatty dark comedy and its sloppy, realistic Elaine May dramatic comedylike beats for taking content that could be bleak very seriously, without devolving into condescending melodrama or anything resembling a cautionary tale all the while, somehow finding a way to crack jokes for days.

Directed by Sean Baker. Now playing at the Charles Theater

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