Mickey O’Hagan and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in "Tangerine," a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Mickey O’Hagan and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in “Tangerine,” a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Scorched in the uneasy hue of the early morning and approaching nightfall, the tangerine of the film’s title is something that lingers but never leers. Los Angeles has never felt so claustrophobic and sprawling at once as it does in Tangerine, Sean Baker’s latest, a film with such verve, it bypasses any easy labeling of comedy or drama. Instead, it settles at something resembling the pathos and strange eccentricities of real life for people on the fringe.

Think of it as a new-fashioned holiday story. On Christmas Eve, transgender prostitutes Sin-Dee Rella and Alexandra (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, respectively) sit in a donut shop in the heart of West Hollywood’s red light district. Sin-Dee has just finished a prison sentence; Alexandra’s met her to share a donut in celebration. It’s here that Sin-Dee finds out that her boyfriend and former pimp, Chester (James Ransone, a regular in Baker’s films), has been sleeping with a fish — trans slang for cis-women. Livid at the thought, Sin-Dee sets out on a journey to track Chester and the woman down, with Alexandra in tow as both willing accomplice and critical observer. We similarly sit willingly captive.

Sin-Dee and Alexandra are kinetic screen presences, and when they appear in the film’s first scene, after a purposefully grainy title card mimicking the celluloid of ’70s fringe cinema, a world you’ve barely entered is immediately given shape. The two of them are foulmouthed and baiting, pushing each other’s buttons — “Merry Christmas, Bitch” is the film’s first line, and a sort of jaded thesis statement — but the banter mimics the fruit of the film’s title: rough coating that leads to something sweeter. Rodriguez and Taylor, both first time actresses Baker met at a Los Angeles LGBTQ center, fully grasp the strength and vulnerability that co-exist within the trans community. At times, it seems like they take it out on each other, their luck of the draw. They are the linchpins of a certain sweet spot that frames their worlds as exciting if still undeniably dangerous.

Baker is interested in that, meaning he wants to show you a world you don’t often see, but he also aims to give you a glimpse as to why its chaos might be mildly intoxicating. Rodriguez and Taylor make mighty tour guides. When you see Sin-Dee shoot up and dart out of the donut shop, with Alexandra in hot pursuit, the film throws you headfirst into something entirely new. Saturated colors and fast edits give you the measured chaos of early era-MTV, with an equally boisterous soundtrack to boot. The sudden drop of a bass-heavy hip-hop beat stings; it’s not quite ill-fitting as much as it is surprising, because it lifts the film up, reminding you that its tone won’t be a tragedy.

Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in "Tangerine," a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in “Tangerine,” a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

There are multiple motivations as the film moves along. Sin-Dee continues looking for Chester’s mistress, accruing vague clues about her identity along the way. Alexandra, meanwhile, is shipping flyers for a performance she’s giving at a local bar that night. Simultaneously, Baker follows a cab driver named Razmik (played by another Baker regular, Karren Karagulian), and it takes a full act before we see how his roaming around Los Angeles intersects with the girls. When these lives converge with seemingly little connective tissue, Los Angeles’ sprawl feels shrunk down to human size and everything culminates in a hilarious meet-up of Altman proportions. The tone will catch you in a fit of questions; you’ll be surprised whose life you find most worth mourning.

The big buzz surrounding Tangerine when it first started making the rounds on the festival circuit was that it was filmed entirely on the iPhone 5S. You wouldn’t know watching it, and that’s part of the film’s appeal. Its visual language isn’t part of its world building, but it certainly helps enhance it. The stark framing of characters against industrial sprawl and the dreamlike tracking shots all help establish a heightened mood that is somewhere between real life and the imagination of the alienated. Much like John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus (2006), which also tackled sexuality and race with daring confidence, Baker uses the film’s destabilizing elements to pull you into a world that looks familiar but is clearly not yours. There are moments when the film’s sexual appetite becomes overwhelming, including an unbroken shot of oral sex in a car wash, but it never feels underserved or included merely to shock.

This year’s Sundance Film Festival became a notoriously tame affair. Nobody seemed to be jumping for joy over much of the films; the dispatch tended to be affable shrugs of enjoyment. Now that we’ve seen the first official trailer for The End of the Tour, the upcoming David Foster Wallace semi-biopic, and are in the midst of Rick Famuyiwa’s festival-darling Dope, we’re seeing some of the bigger festival notes come to fruition. Race, it would seem, is as always front and center. Tortured white geniuses continue to be good business, and if you’re going to tell the story of black life, it better look like something familiar to white people, too. This isn’t an analysis on white viewership as much as it is recognition of what stories mean and to whom.

Like Dope, Tangerine is similarly interested in exploring a specific black experience in Los Angeles (though with far more exactitude and certainty). What makes it unique is the film’s refusal to infantilize or pity the trans actresses at their center; the women in Baker’s film operate in a community that orbits the fringe of even trans life — it’s specific, but not unfamiliar. When the women run into different friends throughout the day, many trans but not all prostitutes, Baker hints at a denser world beyond our two leads. These aren’t the kinds of films that buyers look at as Sundance darlings, at least not anymore. Films like Dope aim the lens at specificity that never pushes buttons, and the blackness that’s on display is, without a doubt, for white viewers.

Tangerine is about these women in a way that films haven’t been about people since the heyday of American cinema in the ’70s. That tension that still bafflingly exists in films with minority leads dealing with the specificity of their own lives is its weapon. Its bravado is simple, and thus universal. There is no lesson, no message, and no core value to tether itself to. It doesn’t subvert anything; it’s not even particularly easy to look at. Instead, it’s about pain and humor, and how the former helps cancels out the latter. On this particular Christmas Eve, for two women whose steely reserve is in place because of the very vulnerabilities the film makes light of, life keeps going loudly, with no interest in a silent night.

Rating: A

Video courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

“Tangerine” will open nationwide in select theaters on Friday, July 10th.