88 min., rated R.
Mounted with driving energy and brassy attitude, "Tangerine" is a thrilling reminder of what one can do with little means by creating a locational specificity and characters who feel alive. 1999's "GO," another unconventional Christmas-in-L.A. comedy, is never far from mind, but it's in the creation of the two leads that gives the film its individual vibrancy, texture and identity. Writer-director Sean Baker (2012's "Starlet") and co-writer Chris Bergoch are anything but judgmental toward these characters, as we get to walk more than a mile in Sin-Dee and Alexandra's heels. If anything, they are affectionate to them but still allow them to be them. They can be rude, catty and even shrill. Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, whom Baker and Bergoch met at a Los Angeles LGBT Center in 2013 and had no major acting experience, are magnetic, uninhibited forces to be reckoned with. They are fierce and energetic and not without biting gusto; without desperately trying to win us over all the time, they win us over even more. The trans community are people too, but this film never coddles them, either. To leaven the pugnacious energy of Sin-Dee, "Tangerine" supplements its free-form narrative with the intertwining of another key character. Razmik (Karren Karagulian) is an Armenian cab driver. He works during the day, but also finds time to pay for a favor from Alexandra, one of his favorites aside from Sin-Dee. When he goes home for Christmas Eve dinner with his wife (Luiza Nersisyan) and young daughter, and becomes irritated with his meddling mother-in-law (Alla Tumanian), Razmik lies about having to go back to work, only to get between Sin-Dee and Chester's trouble-in-paradise scene back at Donut Time.
"Los Angeles is a beautifully wrapped lie," curses Razmik's mother-in-law when she suspects he is off duty and doing something else. Shot on by Baker and Radium Cheung with steadicams and anamorphic lenses, the film looks far better than one could imagine that any thought of the process never becomes distracting. Through the sun-splashed cinematography, it has a vivid, immediate look that one almost can't disagree with the mother-in-law. The film is also given an exhilarating pulse by an electronic music score when it's not being tempered by the sounds of Beethoven or Alexandra's soft, quiet rendition of "Toyland." Underneath the sexual favors in car washes and abusive, "Jerry Springer Show"-ish hair-pulling, there is actually a warm, aching empathy. Every character brings a sort of sadness and vulnerability, including Chester's new concubine Dinah (Mickey O'Hagan) whom Sin-Dee drags all over the city from a motel bordello. After a loud, brash whirlwind of trash-talking in a seamier side of L.A., the film finally takes a breath and ends on a lovely, subtle note that could make "Tangerine" more of a heartwarming Christmas staple than any made-for-the-Hallmark-Channel fare with synthetic snow. Merry Christmas, bitch!
Grade: B +