Each year, it seems to inevitably become true that Indy's two largest and most durable film festivals, Heartland Film Festival and Indy Film Festival, share a little bit of common ground by screening at least 1-2 of the same films.
Tangerine will not be one of those films.
Directed by Sean Baker, whose Prince of Broadway also played the Indy Film Festival, Tangerine is an extraordinary cinematic endeavor that is getting far too much publicity for the ways in which it was created and not nearly enough credit for Baker and crew's memorable efforts in bringing to life a unique story far too seldom told.
The "way" in which Tangerine was made is now the stuff of semi-legends, perhaps most courtesy of its successful world premiere at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Filmed entirely on 3 iPhone 5s smartphones used cooperatively with the Moondog Labs' anamorphic clip-on lens and an $8 app along with FiLMiC Pro and Steadicam Smoothee Mounts, Tangerine is about as muh of a dip into experimental filmmaking as one can get and yet it works absolutely beautifully.
Of course, I suppose it helps to have an actual talented filmmaker doing it all and fully understanding how to maximize the potential of the seemingly simple tools utilized to create the film. It also helps, I suppose, that Baker worked with his usual D.P., Radium Cheung and Cheung clearly understands Baker's style and vision and knows how to pull it all off.
Simple? Yeah right. I'm pretty sure if I picked up an iPhone 5s and headed out to make a film it wouldn't look anything near to Tangerine.
Tangerine ragged and raw, yet it's also intimate and mesmerizing. Baker has seemingly always been drawn to characters such as those featured here, people whose lives are far too often the stuff of stereotypes rather than rich and authentic films. There are times when Tangerine feels like a documentary with its seemingly spontaneous rants and matter-of-fact presentation.
It's not. That's pretty amazing.
The film centers around Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), a transgendered working girl released from prison after 28 days only to discover that her pimp (James Ransone, Oldboy) has been cheating on her with some girl named Dinah (Mickey O'Hagan, Starlet). It's Christmas Eve, but Sin-Dee is pissed off and heads out to the streets to find her pimp and exact revenge with her longtime galpal Alexandra (Mya Taylor) by her side.
At a mere 88 minutes in running time, Tangerine doesn't really dabble in distractions or unnecessary histrionics. Heck, there's already enough histrionics going on. It does, however, weave its way poignantly and often humorously into the lives of Sin-Dee, Alexandra, and a pimp named Chester who more than once made me think of Kid Rock and that really made me laugh.
The friendship between Sin-Dee and Alexandra is never an easy one, though you can't help but get the feeling that even an imperfect friendship like theirs is an awful lot better than trying to survive on these turbulent streets alone. If Kevin Smith were to make a transgendered Clerks, it may very well look and sound a bit like Tangerine but Baker's film is a far deeper and more meaningful film.
Tangerine isn't a film for everyone and I'm not just referring to the fact that it centers around subject matter that would send the folks from Westboro Baptist Church into convulsions. While the film is incredibly well shot, there's no questioning that the film is a low-budget experimental effort and Baker's full-on commitment to living into that may prove unnerving or at least distracting to some folks.
For me? It made me pretty close to perfect.
Both Rodriguez and Taylor create intriguing and involving characters, Rodriguez's Sin-Dee being a fireball of righteous rage and wounded vulnerability and Taylor's Alexandra being hilariously confident and yet often quite endearing. Regular Baker collaborator Karren Karaguillen is terrific as Razmik, an Armenian cab driver with a wife, a daughter, an opinionated mother-in-law, and a pesky little penchant for penis. Karaguillen sells it all with a matter-of-fact quality that keeps us from ever really judging him even after his life begins to unravel a bit.
While he's not in the film until late, James Ransone manages to live into a larger than life appearance. Mickey O'Hagan takes what could have easily been a one-note role and brings Dinah to life in a way that is surprisingly sympathetic.
Tangerine's story isn't the most original story in the world. I knew where it was going fairly early on and I wasn't too far off base, though it has seldom been brought to life with such vivid honesty and within the worlds of such unique yet compelling characters. It shouldn't be too surprising that the film's production values occasionally suffer a bit, though it might be more surprising how often you'll sit there watching the film and suddenly think to yourself "How did he ever shoot this on an iPhone?"
Picked up by Magnolia Pictures for an arthouse release, Tangerine is definitely one of the 2015 Indy Film Festival's true gems, a film that fully lives into everything that indie cinema is about - it's experimentally yet beautifully made and powerfully brings to life stories and characters that are seldom seen even in the indie cinematic world and certainly almost never in your neighborhood multiplexes. In addition to its successful Sundance screening, Baker picked up a "Directors to Watch" prize at Palm Springs International Film Festival and the film won an Independent Camera at Karlovy Vary.
Produced by the Duplass Brothers, who've fortunately never forgotten their roots, Tangerine is one cinematic flavor that you'll be tasting long after you've left the theater.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic