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Tangerine pulls off a pretty remarkable feat. It deals with a segment of life most Americans are unfamiliar with, and whose day-to-day rhythms many of us would find absurd or alien or worse. It subtly acknowledges that this is how its subjects may be perceived, and in its early stages it even uses the absurdity to kickstart its narrative momentum. There were early moments when I worried Tangerine was punching down by making fun of its subjects.

And then, ever so slowly, something remarkable happens. Tangerine’s circumstances remain absurd and often laugh-out-loud funny, but its characters emerge with clearly defined natures and fearsome senses of dignity. It becomes something quietly moving and deeply compassionate.

I guess you could call the genre absurdist humanism. Tangerine isn’t the only film I’ve seen pull it off, but I’ve rarely seen it done with such superb-yet-gentle craftsmanship.

The film opens in a doughnut stand on a Hollywood intersection, where best friends Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (May Taylor) have reunited after Sin-Dee’s 28-day stint in prison. Both women are transgender prostitutes working the neighborhood, and it isn’t long before the conversation inadvertently reveals that Sin-Dee’s pimp and boyfriend, Chester, was unfaithful while she was away – and with a “fish,” no less, which is apparently slang for a biological female.

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What’s cool about the scene is Sin-Dee’s slide from feigned indifference to hurt to boiling fury. She bursts from the doughnut stand and stomps off to find both Chester and Dinah, the offending woman, and exact her vengeance. Meanwhile, Alexandra races after her, making a desperate and futile plea for a more diplomatic strategy.

That starts an episodic quest through the working-class end of the Los Angeles sex-and-drug trade, and its attached communities. Sin-Dee and Alexandra part and reunite, ricocheting through several adventures: Sin-Dee tracks down Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan) at a pulpy, low-rent motel brothel, and then hauls her by the hair across town, shouting every profanity under the sun. Alexandra has to set up a singing performance at a bar for that evening, and also ply her daily trade.

Tangerine is honest about a lot of the brokenness in the exchanges between prostitutes and their johns, but it also sees those exchanges as just how many people have to get by, economically and emotionally. There’s a good deal of matter-of-fact wit, and the movie also deserves credit for finding extras and bit-players who have the look and messiness of real people.

Then there’s Razmik (Karren Karagulian), who supports his family of Armenian immigrants by driving a local cab, and who connects to the other characters’ stories in unexpected and hilarious ways.

If you’ve ever been to Hollywood proper, it’s no longer where the glamour of the entertainment industry resides, and the neighborhood has an organic and rough-and-tumble feel. Tangerine’s immersive quality is helped along by writer and director Sean Baker’s decision to shoot the whole affair on iPhone cameras. Calling that cinematic look “gritty” is rote at this point, but Baker deploys the look well, and it frees him up for a lot of kinetic handheld work. The story is also set on Christmas Eve, which allows us both the oppressive glare of the L.A. sun (it’s never really winter there) and the nighttime gaudiness of the Christmas lights. Lots of films have been set in the City of Angels, but Tangerine is one of the few – along with the likes of The Big Lebowski, L.A. Confidential, and Nightcrawler – to feel viscerally anchored in it.

The two leads, Rodriguez and Taylor, are unknowns who more than rise to the occasion. Rodriguez turns Sin-Dee into a raging ball of wounded pluck, perfectly shifting from bristling street confidence to a maddeningly endearing insistence on giving Chester the benefit of the doubt. Taylor’s Alexandra is ostensibly the more grounded, but she too reveals layers, what with her vulnerable efforts to nurture an artistic outlet and the depths of her affection for her friend. Tangerine does deal in the practicalities of transgender identities – the make-up, the wigs, and so forth – but it never seeks condescending sadness in these efforts. Rather, Tangerine finds an infectious joy from Alexandra and Sin-Dee in the performative aspects of their identities.

O’hagan invests her character with another version of toughness over a human core, and Dinah and Sin-Dee find tender moments of commonality. Karagulian’s Razmik also heads in an unexpected direction, as we see both the poignancy of his secret needs and they way they’ve alienated him from his family. Even the devil-may-care Chester (James Ransome) gets his moment when he finally shows up: he isn’t evil, but he’s gotten used to his position of power in this little subculture, and thus takes manipulation and deceit for granted.

Eventually things circle back to the doughnut shop for a late-night showdown, where truths are revealed and betrayals are confronted, often in ways and combinations we weren’t expecting. Some of the stories end sadly, but not all. And what you eventually realize is you’ve seen a subtle and surprisingly deep meditation on the value of friendship. Tangerine is a well-crafted film and a genuinely moral one, but it’s also a wonderfully orchestrated romp of entertainment.

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