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.)

Poster artFocusing on 10 years in the life of a man who has decided to undergo a transformation into a woman, Xavier Dolan handles the drama of Laurence Anyways with a wry sense of balance that includes powerful performances, expertly paced scenes, spectacular set design and costumes and a brilliant command of cinematographic language. Though tackling an often misunderstood subculture in the varied array of the LGBT world (a man who wants to be a woman who still has an attraction to women) the film is simply a brilliantly sculpted piece of cinematic drama that should be seen by cinephiles in search of something that boldy explores and exploits the cinematic medium to its limits. But there’s a brilliant, compassionate story at the center of it, too.

At the film’s start, against nothing but company logos of production houses that made the film possible we can hear Laurence (Melvil Poupaud): “I’m looking for a person who understands my language and speaks it. A person who, without being a pariah, will question not only the rights and the value of the marginalized, but also those of the people who claim to be normal.” It’s a bold statement beyond sex and gender, and the film stays true to that, never over-sexualizing but focusing on acceptance of a person out to challenge what seems “normal” in a compulsive yet honest— if not passionate— manner.

As the intense drama between Laurence and his girlfriend Fred (Suzanne Clément) offers up one conundrum after another while offering insight into the troubles involved in Laurence’s desire to finally be true to who he believes he really is, laurence-anyways-3Dolan provides a kaleidoscope of cinema that always feels fresh from scene to scene. He even throws in a few scenes of poetic fantasy sequences to express revelations that exist beyond the tangible world. For instance, to cap off one conversation between the couple, Laurence opens his mouth to only have a butterfly flutter out.

But that’s mere stunt work compared to the subtle craft that permeates the many scenes in the film. Laurence Anyways feels like an experience. Early on, in 1989, when Laurence is about to reveal his desire to change, he and Fred are making out inside a car as rain pounds on the windshield and Kim Carnes’ 1981 hit “Bette Davis Eyes” blares from the radio. The scene is lensed with a fish eye, making the interior seem expansive. Fred, her brunette hair partly painted a brilliant red expounds on tapping into experiences via color. They exchange intense phrases of sex and trauma and their associative colors. In the distance a woman in a red raincoat walks by, blurred by the fierce raindrops. It’s a brilliant allusion to the personality Laurence and Fred are about to tangle with for the remainder of the film.

Many scenes in Laurence Anyways echo with layered meaning and drama. It’s in the small details as well as the grand. The film is full of surprises, from inventive camera angles to the a varied color palette. A later confrontation inside the car is punctuated by the wash cycle of the car wash the couple is sitting through. laurence-anyways-4The details in the set design are worth noting for the glaring dichotomies, from floral print pillows coupled with zebra-print roll pillows to the conscious decision to show a metal rail on a red, wooden door frame. Some shots could be framed as art pieces, like the image of carefully torn pages of a letter scattered inside a toilet bowl, shot straight from above.

The film’s two-hour-and-40-minute runtime should not be considered a detriment. Dolan does so much with the many scenes that never feel overlong from a cinematic standpoint. The film never feels like it drags. Divided into several chapters, noting certain years, Dolan even varies fonts of the intertitles. The director also does not stick to one sort of cinematographic technique. Some scenes merit long, lingering distant shots, others handheld work. Laurence Anyways is all about change, after all.

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Despite all the flash, it never overshadows the heartfelt performances of the actors who take on their damaged personas with amazing gusto. Fred’s outburst toward an older and over-inquisitive waitress during a Saturday Brunch with Laurence probably stands as the reason why the jury at Cannes took notice of her to give her the best actress prize in the Un Certain Regard category. The tension between her love of Laurence, her frustration with a situation in their relationship she had no choice in and an anger at a world filled with people who judge from a distance pours forth with a fervor that will break your heart.

Though the film feels personal and intimate, it never loses sight of the glam and glitter side of Laurence’s pull toward the feminine. There are scenes of such high-tilt glam,Laurence-Anyways-Xavier-Dolan-2012-cannes-640x350 Ziggy Stardust would go home and cry. At the same time, the film never loses sight of the passionate connection between two souls who are drawn together no matter their situation. It’s similar to what Cloud Atlas said with its various characters drawn together over various centuries, but without the hokum. This feels real. There’s passion in this young director and he knows how to tap into a similar passion in his two leads to make for one of the more compelling dramas of 2013.

Hans Morgenstern

Laurence Anyways Trailer from Breaking Glass Pictures on Vimeo.

Lauerence Anyways is not rated, runs 168 min. and is in English and French with English subtitles. It plays in South Florida exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which loaned me a blu-ray screener for the purposes of this review. The film is presented in conjunction with Dolan’s 2009 debut feature, I Killed My Mother, marking that film’s US theatrical debut. FYI: Dolan won Best Film at the Cannes Film Festival Director’s Fortnight with that film when he was 19 years old. If you are outside South Florida, Laurence Anyway’s national screening dates can be found here.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)