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‘Tangerine’ has zest but not enough juice

Mya Taylor (left) and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in “Tangerine.”
Mya Taylor (left) and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in “Tangerine.”Magnolia Pictures

The color of the title citrus pervades Sean Baker's "Tangerine," a tinted, iPhone-photographed romp through a demimonde of prostitution and drugs. So do the colors of cantaloupes, mangos, and all the other flavors in the Lifesavers tropical fruit assortment. This palette, along with the New Wave-ish jump cuts and whimsically eclectic soundtrack — bopping from hip-hop to Victor Herbert's operetta "Babes in Toyland" to Beethoven's "Coriolan Overture" — transforms an unsavory world into a sweet and sour confection. In effect, "Tangerine" offers a saccharine alternative to the uncut realism of the Safdie brothers' "Heaven Knows What."

And, as Baker never lets you forget, it all takes place on Christmas Eve. In sunny, snowless LA! With transgender sex workers! Subtlety and irony are not among the film's virtues.


The tone of jolly vulgarity is established from the start as Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) wishes a "Merry Christmas Eve, bitch!" to her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor). Unlike their surroundings — a flyspecked doughnut shop — the friends look fabulous. Sin-Dee feels exultant because, after 28 days in jail, she is going to reunite with her boyfriend-pimp Chester (James Ransome). But Alexandra lets slip the rumor that Chester has cheated on Sin-Dee with another of his charges, Dinah (Mickey O'Hagan), a "real" woman "with a vagina and everything." Sin-Dee storms off in a murderous rage to find her rival and Alexandra reluctantly tags along, swearing she will not stand for much "drama."

She need not fear that from this movie. After establishing this sketchy story line Baker sets off on another tangent, its significance and connection with the first unclear. An Armenian Travis Bickle, Ramzik (Karren Karagulian) tours the neighborhood in his cab, picking up a variety of Yuletide stragglers. A seeming digression, it produces some of the film's most affecting, darkly humorous scenes. His fares include a woman with a pet carrier at an animal hospital and an elderly Native American called The Cherokee (Clu Gulager) who looks like Lloyd Bridges and tells Ramzik that he speaks pretty good English for a foreigner. Inevitably, though, Ramzik's trajectory intersects with the initial narrative in a racy car wash scene.


From that point on, "Tangerine" drifts into anticlimax, with it all coming together in a belabored "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World"-style finale. One citric signifier lingers on, however, in the form of a tangerine auto deodorizer hung up on a rearview mirror to mask a reveler's indiscretion. The dangling item epitomizes the movie. The problem isn't that the scented coverup doesn't work, but that it works too well.

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Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.