Tangerine **

by Andres Solar

On-the-street tale of transgender prostitutes fails to connect.

Is it worth $10? No     

Talented American writer/director Sean Baker, of the quietly excellent "Starlet" (2012), ventures deeper into L.A.'s sex trade in "Tangerine," about two close friends, transgender women, working as prostitutes. Impressively shot using three iPhones, this film again showcases the young artist's exciting visual style and, not often enough, his skills in creating simmering conflict.

Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) serve as sorts of high-heeled, wild guides through West Hollywood's streets of street drugs and street walkers. Sin-Dee learns that her pimp/"boyfriend" had sex with a non-trans woman (a "fish," apparently, in the parlance of the trade) while the former was briefly imprisoned, and half of the movie focuses on her efforts to find him and, presumably, read him the riot act.

The introduction of Sin-Dee and Alexandra's bad-girl, urban lingo is the first indication that the script is way off. With "bitch" repeated every other word, it clearly becomes a challenge for the young actresses (neither with much acting experience) to maintain authenticity. Also, the filmmakers take pains to sneakily explain certain slang terms, increasing the honesty problems. If you want to explain the language, come out and explain it, using voiceover narration or any number of other devices. Slipping the definitions into dialogue doesn't serve the characters well.

Compounding the problems, Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch (who also co-wrote "Starlet") lean heavily on the fakey dialogue both for momentum and characterization. There are few reasons presented for one to like or cheer on Sin-Dee and Alexandra other than "they sound so rude and cool." Both actresses are transgender women in real life, and it seems Baker also banks on the characters' difficult positions in society for the necessary sympathy.

It's not enough, and there are socio-psychological reasons why. Just because one isn't bigoted and has no beef at all with LGBTQ people doesn't mean that one must like every individual person who identifies as such. Main character Sin-Dee, for example, is a particularly self-centered and mean-spirited person until late in the film when she exhibits a little tenderness.

The third act comes together in a pleasant crescendo to climax, and Baker strives to insert some redemptive moments. The overall feeling, though, is that this daily dehumanization and hard living is somehow okay, even cool. It is not.

Also disappointing is that Baker squanders a character that played so well in "Starlet" (and many other films): Los Angeles itself. He employs so many street stereotypes that the whole thing could be playing out just about anywhere. The glamorous grit and gritty glamor of L.A. are absent. "Tangerine" is a heck of a misfire from the Baker/Burgoch team, but glimmer such as in the clever trompe l'oeil main title sequence and the funny, chaotic doughnut shop scene keep the filmmakers firmly in the "ones to watch" category.

Andres Solar reviews new fare with an emphasis on art house and indie for Punch Drunk Movies. He would love to see Burt Reynolds in another Paul Thomas Anderson movie but understands that it probably “Ain’t gonna happen.”

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