Tangerine is a humane and hilarious leap forward for transgender cinema
With a cast of non-professionals and filmed in places where prostitutes of Los Angeles work, Tangerine sounds bleak but is riotously life-affirming
Donut Time doesn't look like much from the outside, but for Tangerine director Sean Baker, it was everything.
With bright yellow bubble letters spelling out the humdrum name on two humdrum, sun-faded signs, the tiny, 24-hour, cash-only shop stands separately in front of a similarly unremarkable strip mall in the middle of Hollywood. It's the type of spot that you might not even notice in the daytime.
At night, it's a different story.
The intersection is one of the most notorious in Hollywood - a haven for sex workers, drug dealers, their clients and others on the fringe. And it's this very real store and very real types that frequent it that provide the core for one of the year's most groundbreaking and unconventional films: Tangerine, a rowdy odyssey of two transgender sex workers searching for their pimp one Christmas Eve.
Boasting two unknown transgender leads and shot on an iPhone 5S, Tangerine became an unlikely breakout at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, sparking a modest bidding war between various distributors.
It would never have happened had Baker not met trans women and aspiring performers Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez at the Los Angeles LGBT Centre a few years prior. It was their lives and their deep knowledge of the neighbourhood that inspired and informed the film.
The plot loosely follows fresh-out-of-jail Sin-Dee (Rodriguez) on the hunt for her cheating boyfriend/pimp and his mistress, while best friend Alexandra (Taylor) works the street and readies for a performance that evening. It's a world that few people know about, and even fewer experience.
"This is an extremely vulnerable group of people. They are the most marginalised. They are trans women of colour who are also sex workers. You can't be more alienated and isolated by society than they are," says Baker.
On paper, the film couldn't sound bleaker, but the experience of watching it is something else. It is alive with a pulsating energy and is often quite funny, even in depicting this awful day. That humour came directly from Rodriguez and Taylor. Baker describes their banter as a stand-up comedy routine come to life.
Bawdy and fast-talking, the two friends are the first to point out that their characters are basically them. Taylor is the mellow one - talkative and thoughtful even at the tail end of a long day. Rodriguez is the spark plug. Pretty and manic, she speaks quickly and playfully, peppering her speech with benign expletives followed by coy apologies for her "naughtiness".
With such colour and charisma jumping off the screen, it's almost incidental that the film was shot on an iPhone - a quirky detail that had audiences buzzing at Sundance. If anything, it allowed them to be more discreet when shooting. They would occasionally continue "rolling" when real customers would come into the shop. Once, the actress playing the cashier even sold someone a doughnut.
Authenticity was always the goal. "It teaches people the reality of what's actually going on out there," says Taylor.
Baker hopes that people will remember the film for his actresses and not the iPhone. "There's a lot of talent out there in areas where the industry isn't looking and this is just one more reason to be diverse in casting," he says.
Tangerine's release coming now couldn't be more ideal. In the short time since the film was first conceived, transgender stories have trickled into the mainstream, whether in fiction, with shows such as Transparent and Orange is the New Black, or real life, as in the high-profile Vanity Fair reveal of Caitlyn Jenner.
"It's in the zeitgeist. Something has been brewing in the past couple of years and the awareness is growing, which is a wonderful thing," says Baker.
"Our movie is literally about a micro subculture in the trans community. It's about a block in LA. It should hopefully be considered one of what will be a million stories."
Tangerine opens on Oct 22