tangerine-poster-695x1024There’s a sense of liberation in indie writer/director Sean Baker’s follow-up to his 2012 film Starlet, a film that felt weighed down by its intentions (Film Review: Misguided ‘Starlet’ fails as wannabe transcendent drama). Compared to his previous film, which suffered from contrivances and weak performances that reached for something grand but never went anywhere, his new movie, Tangerine is a sea change. It never tries to be anything more than it is, even while featuring a timely element of today’s contemporary culture: the transgender person. In doing so it becomes a grounded, human story with a consistent sense of humor that may just blow you away.

Though Baker still can’t seem to contain an over-the-top, sometimes self-conscious acting style, it works in Tangerine. Some have compared the film to the work to what Andy Warhol did with his cast of characters at The Factory, and it’s a perfect comparison, except there’s a definite plot and even a smart sense of story-telling. This is also a production by the Duplass brothers, who were pioneers in presenting comedic dramas featuring chatty characters working through their positions in life in films that were sometimes preciously self-aware, and that ethos is also present. TangerineBaker’s main characters are two transgender prostitutes working the streets of Los Angeles one warm Christmas Eve. After her release from jail, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) joins Alexandra (Mya Taylor) at a doughnut shop to catch up. Soon into their conversation, Alexandra lets slip that Sin-Dee’s no good boyfriend/pimp cheated on her with another prostitute, what she calls “a white fish … vagina and everything.” Much of the film follows Sin-Dee on a rampage trying to find out who the other woman is and then hunting her down. Meanwhile, a parallel story unfolds about Armenian taxi driver and family man Razmik (Karren Karagulian). Just like Sin-Dee and Alexandra, Razmik harbors his own deeper knowledge of the streets. While Sin-Dee’s out searching for her vengeance, Alexandra passes out flyers for her open mic performance later that night. Meanwhile, Razmik picks up one quirky fare after another, including a couple of drunk dudes during one of the film’s funniest moments of gross-out slapstick.

This is a comedy, but it’s also more. It’s a sincerely human and confrontational film that arrives at its insights with a brazen sense of humor and a light touch. The worlds of these people will collide in manners both visceral and profound. All the while, Baker never loses his grip of the humor that holds it all together. Though transgender characters have been treated way more seriously in earlier foreign films that I’ve written about (see this review and this one), Tangerine brings a human dimension to its characters that’s still lighthearted and dynamic. TangerineIt helps that the film has a kinetic energy, shot using iPhones. The movie opens with a sprightly, symphonic version of “Toyland” played against the white script opening credits that appear over a curiously scuffed and scratched brilliant yellow surface. Then two pairs of large, black hands appear, revealing the yellow backdrop was a worn table. The hands show a flash of wear in their own way. The fingernails are unclean, but one wrist features ornate costume bracelets. One of the hands unwraps a colorful sprinkle-covered, frosted doughnut from a greasy white bag and lays it atop the paper pouch. “Merry Christmas Eve, bitch,” says one to the other before we meet Sin-Dee and Alexandra.

There’s a fascinating amount of information and humor in the moment. This is a film of high-contrast color that appreciates the rough edges, as well. Throughout Tangerine, the brightness and the range of color amazes, especially seeing as the film was shot with a trio of 5S iPhones. The camera phones help soften the actors’ style, drawing out more naturalistic moments above those self-conscious ones. They also capture a few breathtaking wide-shots that speak to Baker’s keen eye for visuals. It’s all done with a raw but sympathetic sense of humor that still highlights the challenges of a world few really know. Baker shot the film with Radium Cheung in a fast and loose manner. Baker also channeled that energy in the editing room himself. The iPhone cameras and the transgender element in a post-Caitlin Jenner world are interesting hooks, but they wouldn’t have mattered without the passion and delight Baker transmits in making this film. It has its rough edges, some scenes go on too long and the acting doesn’t always measure up, but this could very well be a new classic in indie film.

Hans Morgenstern

Trailer:

Tangerine runs 88 minutes and is rated R (cussing, nudity and drug use). The film opened in our Miami area this Friday, July 31, for an exclusive run at O Cinema Wynwood. Magnolia Pictures provided an on-line screener link for the purpose of this review. It’s playing in many locations across the U.S. and has future dates scheduled through November, so if you live in other parts of the U.S., follow this link for other screening locations. All images courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Starlet poster art. Courtesy of Music Box Films.I can appreciate a lo-fi film as much as the next guy who got into cinema with Werner Herzog and the Dogma years of Lars Von Trier. But Herzog and Von Trier know how to harness the power of raw acting and subvert what may seem an aimless story into a transcendent statement. Starlet, the fourth film by “Greg the Bunny” co-creator Sean Baker, tries to do this but stumbles with characters that never have the chemistry promised by its premise and ends with a limp finale disguised as some sort of profound reveal that the film never seems to earn. In-between there are problematic detours in character behavior and the superfluous notion that unsimulated sex does something to raise the film’s story to some other level.

Dree Hemingway (the great-granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway and daughter of Mariel Hemingway) plays the film’s lead character, Jane. She’s a young woman jumping into the hardcore pornography business in Los Angeles. The title, however, may also refer to her pet Chihuahua, a male dog she named Starlet, which it may as well be all about. The film feels that aimless. It could also reference— and this is the film’s most interesting but under-explored idea— Sadie (Besedka Johnson in her first film, and it shows in a bad, distant way) Sadie (Besedka Johnson) and Jane (Dree Hemingway) in STARLET. Courtesy of Music Box Films.the elderly woman Jane tries so hard to befriend. It seems Sadie may have been a Hollywood screen siren in her heyday, based on some background characters reaction to spotting her at a coffee shop with Jane, halfway through the film. Beyond that, Sadie always maintains a distance from Jane. They never seem to bond, though Jane keeps trying to insert herself into Sadie’s life by offering her rides to Bingo games and the supermarket or just inviting herself over to Sadie’s house.

The relationship begins with the problematic premise that Jane would even care to be part of Sadie’s life after she buys a thermos off Sadie during a garage sale. It turns out to contain about $10,000 in cash, which Jane discovers while washing it out in her kitchen sink (who would have thought that much cash would barely weigh down a thermos?).

Jane (Dree Hemingway) in STARLET. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

When Jane finds the money, she goes off and starts spending it on things like a $460 manicure and a bejeweled harness for her dog. Jane then returns to Sadie’s house who tells her, “I told you there’s no refunds.” Still, Jane persists, offering her a ride at the supermarket after she pays Sadie’s waiting taxi cab driver to leave. Jane never mentions the money she found, she instead invites herself into Sadie’s house, who chastises her at every turn, when she picks up her chotskies (“Don’t touch that!”) or shares a glass of water with Starlet (“What are you doing? That’s disgusting… and you’re drinking out of it?!”).

Their relationship remains cold and awkward throughout. In her micro shorts and cut-off tops, Jane never seems to make a real effort to connect with Sadie who almost always looks at Jane with disgust. jane-dree-hemingway-and-sadie-besedka-johnson-in-starlet-courtesy-of-music-box-filmsJane’s shallow questions and comments like, “I like your garden,” never seem to penetrate Sadie. A chemistry never appears, though Jane asks questions of Sadie often. Whatever obscure motivation she might have to befriend Sadie after taking her money remains a mystery, which in turn fails to highlight their relationship, scene after aimless scene. Only when Sadie maces Jane, after she asks Sadie if she ever wins at Bingo, does the film offer something authentic between these two. Conflict is always important between characters, but the conflict must also bring them together, and this movie never does.

The acting also fails to rise to the subtle requirements these characters need for sympathy from the audience. The desperation of the director to reveal Jane’s character is never more visceral than in his decision to show her giving unsimulated head to an actor and being penetrated during her first sex performance for the camera (through some smart editing, porn star Zoe Voss plays Hemingway’s body double). However, her character never seems to change and remains as clueless as ever. The X-rated sex comes across as shocking and unnecessary. Is not the implication she works in porn enough of a reveal?

The only interesting actress in the movie turns out to be Jane’s Oxycontin-popping, pot smoking roommate Melissa (Stella Maeve), an already established porn actress. Jane (Dree Hemingway) and Melissa (Stella Maeve). Courtesy of Music Box Films.During one scene, the desperate and conniving Melissa comes roaring to life, as Maeve reveals a dynamic ability to tap into something primal during an argument between Melissa and Jane. It is as if Maeve is trying to show Hemingway how to act.

Small moments of interesting acting are not enough to save this film, however. With its slight, contrived pay off, Starlet is a long film to have to endure for all its half-assed effort. It almost has a salacious and exploitative quality toward Hemingway, which only adds to my disdain for this film. Starlet harbors the potential for something close to heartfelt, but the director only seems to grope around the edges, if only he could stop focusing on Hemingway’s legs.

Hans Morgenstern

Starlet is not rated (beyond the drug use and language, there is, of course, the unsimulated sex, so mature audiences only) and runs 103 min. It is currently playing in South Florida at the Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, which provided a preview screener for the purpose of this review. If you are in other parts of the US, find out where its playing by visiting the film’s official website.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)