At one point in “Tangerine,” a tattooed pimp named Chester recuses himself from a dispute among prostitutes arguing outside a doughnut shop by declaring, “This a ... girl thing.”
Chester is right. The drama in this enchanting movie belongs to the ladies, specifically to two electric newcomers to the screen, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, in the role of a brassy recent parolee named Sin-Dee, and Mya Taylor, as her elegant best friend and reluctant accomplice, Alexandra.
Both African American and transgender, Rodriguez and Taylor perform a “Thelma and Louise"-style girlfriend comedy for our modern age, as Sin-Dee, released from prison on Christmas Eve, tears through the strip malls and street corners of Hollywood looking for a cheating lover.
With a witty and efficient script by director Sean Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch, “Tangerine” peels back the curtain on a fascinating Los Angeles microculture — the world of transgender prostitutes who work the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue.
The L.A. they inhabit is one rarely seen on the big screen, a low-rent city of doughnut shops, coin-op laundromats and jumped subway turnstiles. The chemistry of the leads and their authentic, crackling dialogue make it a pleasure to tag along for the day.
“The world can be a cruel place,” Alexandra consoles Sin-Dee as they walk the sun-bleached city. “Yes, it is cruel,” Sin-Dee replies. “God gave me a penis. That’s pretty cruel, don’t you think?”
As more Americans have come to know transgender women through the recent, high-profile transition of Caitlyn Jenner, Rodriguez and Taylor offer a different, messier reality, one that is both a few freeway exits and a million miles away from Jenner’s Malibu compound. Together with Laverne Cox’s performance in Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” and Jeffrey Tambor’s in Amazon’s “Transparent,” characters like Sin-Dee and Alexandra are humanizing one slice of a wildly diverse culture.
Sin-Dee is fast-talking, manic and high on either drama, meth or both for most of the film; Alexandra, who carries herself with the grace of an actress from Hollywood’s Golden Era, is a perfect, droll counterpoint, and her slow, nonverbal reactions to Sin-Dee’s antics, or to the cheapness of a john, are captivating.
The movie doesn’t ignore the darkness of their lives but doesn’t wallow in it either. While Sin-Dee frantically hunts the cheaters, Alexandra is focused on a singing gig at the West Hollywood institution Hamburger Mary’s. The gig is as real as Alexandra’s long silky weave — she has paid the doorman to perform — but Taylor’s moving rendition of the song “Toyland” proves that being a genuine woman has little to do with such technicalities.
“Tangerine” takes its title from the movie’s sunny, saturated cinematography, in which an orange candy glow coats the gritty streets. The effect is especially remarkable given that Baker and his director of photography, Radium Cheng, shot “Tangerine” using iPhones with anamorphic adapters. They find beauty in the dingiest locations, including a poignant sex scene set inside a car wash, over the hypnotic sounds of brushes slapping and dryers humming, as soap suds stream down the windshield.
The film’s supporting characters are as vivid and well cast as its leads. Karren Karagulian, a veteran of Baker’s other features including “Starlet” and “Prince of Broadway,” is heartbreaking as an Armenian cab driver named Razmik, whose fares and family seem to be co-conspirators in crazy making.
As Chester, James Ransone, perhaps best known for playing the wigged-out Ziggy on HBO’s “The Wire,” somehow radiates sexy and scuzzy in the same gesture.
Like its story, the music in “Tangerine” bumps from one colorful world to another — techno to classical to Armenian folk — and yet has a beautiful cohesion.
When Razmik’s hectoring mother-in-law and Sin-Dee collide late in the film, they’re both wearing showy animal-print blouses. The costuming is a wonderful visual joke and a subtle, affecting way of showing what we all have in common.
MPAA rating: Rated R, for strong and disturbing sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout, and drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes
Playing: ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood; Landmark Theaters, West Los Angeles
SIGN UP FOR OUR ENTERTAINMENT NEWSLETTERS: