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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his lovely wife, the writer Emily L. Stephens, and their cat, Cooper. When not watching all the movies ever made or digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: July 21, 2015

‘Tangerine’ – a portrait of people at the very bottom of society – screens at SPACE

Written by: Dennis Perkins
Film still

Film still

There’s indie film and then there’s “Tangerine,” the frenetic, thoroughly disreputable farce from director Sean Baker (2012’s independent film “Starlet”). The fast-paced, foul-mouthed story of a pair of transgender prostitutes, Sin-Dee and Alexandra, pursuing separate journeys through the mean streets of a West Hollywood Christmas Eve – an ultra low-budget film that scored a theatrical release from Magnolia Pictures after generating buzz at the Sundance Film Festival – is a propulsive, exhaustingly grubby rush from start to finish.

A lot of that buzz has come courtesy of the fact that Baker shot the movie entirely on iPhones (with help from an anamorphic lens attachment and Steadicam mounts). The film reinforces Baker’s choice with its style and subject matter. Whether chosen out of economic necessity or not, the grainy, garish look provided by the phone cameras makes Sin-Dee and Alexandra’s long, ragged night both immediate and seedy, the ever-present Christmas lights throbbing cheaply in the hot California air. As one character says, “Los Angeles is a beautifully wrapped lie,” and the film’s grimy L.A. Christmas certainly bears her out.

Apart from the minuscule budget (about $100,000), “Tangerine” has gotten a lot of press for the largely unknown cast, especially Kitana Kiki Rodriguez (as Sin-Dee) and Mya Taylor (Alexandra), both of whom were discovered by Baker and cast in their first feature. The only recognizable face in the cast is “The Wire’s” James Ransone – he played Ziggy – who turns in a hilarious performance as Chester, Sin-Dee’s lover and dim-bulb pimp, a slouchy would-be player who conducts business from a booth at a doughnut shop. As the film opens, Sin-Dee, just released from jail, is out to find Chester, who not only didn’t turn up to meet her, but who has reportedly thrown Sin-Dee over for a cisgender woman (or “fish,” in Sin-Dee’s parlance).

Film still

Film still

Thus begins a frantic, music-heavy quest, with Sin-Dee taking no prisoners as she steamrolls everyone she can think of, trying to find out where Chester and this woman (known only by the first initial ‘D’) are hiding out. At the same time, the marginally less obsessed Alexandra plies her trade while simultaneously attempting to hustle her colleagues into attending her singing engagement at a seedy bar, and a very conflicted Armenian cabbie (Karren Karagulian) ducks out on family Christmas dinner to track down Sin-Dee for his own reasons.

“Tangerine” weaves all these stories together in energetic fashion, culminating in a chaotic final showdown at the doughnut shop. For all the external hoopla, “Tangerine” isn’t a revolutionary film, its picaresque scenes of squalor and seediness at the service of ramshackle comedy of romantic obsession. What’s most compelling is its portrait of a handful of people at the very bottom of society (the bottom of the bottom, really) pursuing their stunted dreams with a passion that’s as heartbreaking as it is unremittingly obnoxious.

Rodriguez and Taylor anchor the film with their unabashedly theatrical performances, their hyperactive impulsiveness (especially Sin-Dee) keeping the story moving ever forward even as their shrillness and self-destructiveness get a bit repetitious at times. (The iPhone gimmick places the actresses so immediately in their surroundings that it makes them feel authentically at home there.) In the end, all the shouting and running around (and crack smoking, and car wash assignations) are in service of a few quiet moments of human contact, where Sin-Dee and Alexandra rediscover their sisterly bond, a tiny oasis of peace and support in a very harsh and degrading world.

“Tangerine” screens at SPACE Gallery on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $8, $6 for SPACE members and students with ID. A Skype Q&A with director Sean Baker follows the feature. space538.org

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SPACE GALLERY, Portland | space538.org

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