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D: Sean Baker / 88m

Cast: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karren Karagulian, Mickey O’Hagan, James Ransone, Alla Tumanian, Luiza Nersisyan, Arsen Grigoryan, Ian Edwards, Scott Krinsky, Clu Gulager

Tangerine is the latest feature from Sean Baker, an independent movie maker whose previous outings have looked closely at the lives of people who appear disenfranchised or who are living in a sub-culture that most people have no idea about. Here, Baker focuses on two transgender friends, Sin-Dee (Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Taylor), and what happens when Sin-Dee, having spent some time in jail, learns that her boyfriend, Chester (Ransone), has been cheating on her with Dinah (O’Hagan) while she was inside.

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From this simple premise, Baker has crafted an equally simple tale that is by turns funny, sad, poignant, richly textured and incredibly bittersweet. Tangerine has a raw immediacy about it that compensates for some of the narrative’s more soap opera-like moments, and Baker is helped immeasurably by the performances of Rodriguez and Taylor. As Sin-Dee, Rodriguez is consumed by anger and a desire for revenge that fuels her journey throught the movie, and the actress is such a strong screen presence you can rarely take your eyes off her. As the aspiring singer Alexandra, Taylor is more reserved, almost a spectator, but she carries herself with such a strong sense of her own place in the scheme of things that she, like Rodriguez, becomes an equally strong screen presence.

Baker regular Karagulian – his character in Take Out (2004) is listed as “Chicken or beef” – features in a subplot involving an Armenian taxi driver, Razmik, who has a penchant for transgender prostitutes. At first it seems incidental to the main story, but Baker and co-scripter Chris Bergoch (seen briefly covered in another character’s vomit) link his story quite cleverly with Sin-Dee’s, and it all leads to the kind of embarrassing confrontation that is both funny and awful at the same time. This extended scene, which takes place in a branch of Donut Time, is the movie’s stand out sequence, and features an equally stand out turn from Ransone as the pimp who seems to be nicer than most but who shows glimpses of the shark beneath the pleasant exterior.

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With the characterisations firmly established and locked down by his talented cast, Baker is free to explore the somewhat murkier realm of transgender prostitution and the darker side of sexual obsession (Razmik is disgusted when a girl he picks up proves to have a vagina). Baker doesn’t go too deeply but shows just enough to remind viewers that this isn’t a healthy lifestyle, and that Sin-Dee and Alexandra are both doing their best to survive. It’s an obvious point to make, perhaps, but one that fits in well with the narrative.

Tangerine has attracted a lot of attention for its visuals, having been shot on a number of iPhone 5s’s. It’s a fascinating fact, and shows just how far technology has come, but in reality, if you didn’t know this before seeing the movie you wouldn’t even notice (which is the better point to make). The title is derived from the colour the sky turns at dusk in Hollywood (where the movie was shot), and some of the compositions are breathtaking to look at. Baker has a keen eye for where to place his camera(phone) during a scene, and some of his framing packs in a lot of unexpected detail. With a soundtrack that features several judiciously placed songs, the movie has a style that is effective and embracing, and there’s a beautifully judged ending to round things off.

Rating: 8/10 – not without its problems in terms of its main plot, which seems too thin at times to mount a whole movie on, Tangerine nevertheless succeeds by virtue of two wonderful central performances, and Baker’s firm control over the project as a whole; it’s also a movie that rewards on multiple viewings and has a tendency to wrong-foot the viewer to good effect, making it even more worthwhile to watch.