The cruel, screwball, vivacious world of Tangerine

Tangerine has so much vitality and pizzazz, the fact it was made on an iPhone is almost besides the point. Plus: Steve Jobs.

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Any self-respecting tour of Los Angeles film locations now has a new stop to add to favourites such as the Griffith Observatory (Rebel Without a Cause) and the LA River culvert (Grease, Terminator 2): Donut Time, a cramped and insalubrious neon-lit corner-café at the intersection of Santa Monica and Highland Avenue. It’s the hub of Tangerine (15, dir. Sean Baker), a fizzy festive story that is in no danger of being mistaken for It’s a Wonderful Life. Though what I wouldn’t give to have heard Jimmy Stewart deliver its opening line: “Merry Christmas Eve, bitch!”

The movie, shot for scarcely more than the cost of a glazed dozen, begins with two transgender sex workers shooting the breeze. The twitchy, sassy Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is determined to find the woman whom her boyfriend, who happens also to be her pimp, has been sleeping with while she was in prison. Her cooler, calmer best friend, Alexandra (Mya Taylor), has agreed to accompany her on the proviso that there will be no drama. Fat chance.

Within minutes, Sin-Dee is staggering across streets to accost bemused strangers in the hunt for her prey, while the camera struggles to keep up. In between these forays the girls have to earn a living, and the film’s easygoing approach to their work doesn’t preclude shocks. There’s a spin on that standard scene in which a man recoils in disgust at finding that the woman he has chosen is really a man. (Here, the woman is a woman.) We get a glimpse of LA hypocrisy when a motel clerk directs Sin-Dee past a sign warning that prostitutes will be refused service and on to the “party room” – that is, the one set aside for six or seven transactions at once. It’s like the express checkout, only with more than the usual quantity of unexpected items in the bagging area.

The world of Tangerine can be cruel but the film’s writer-director, Sean Baker, has his antennae twitching for kindness. Well, it is Christmas, as people keep reminding one another incongruously in the blazing sun. Tenderness comes in many forms: in Alexandra buying her favourite customer, Razmik (Karren Karagulian), a $5 air freshener to mask the stench of vomit in his cab; or in Sin-Dee cheering on Alexandra’s debut as a singer at a local bar. (Reflected light from a disco ball supplies the nearest thing to falling snow.) The story’s energy comes from vivacious characters and screwball plotting. When Razmik’s mother-in-law burst on to the scene, it suddenly hit me: this is Pedro Almodóvar on a shoestring. There is so much vitality and pizzazz, it seems almost by the by to point out that the whole film was shot on an iPhone.

In this sense, we have Steve Jobs to thank, in part, for the existence of Tangerine. So, it is ironic that the film bearing his name feels so antiquated in its methods and dramatic priorities. Steve Jobs (15, dir. Danny Boyle) is divided into three extended, jittery scenes, each one taking place just before the launch of a new product by Jobs (Michael Fassbender). We’re not supposed to buy the conceit that every significant confrontation in his life occurred backstage at these events: it’s a trick by the screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, to compress decades of history into a handful of flashpoints. But there is something dogged and mechanical about watching the same face-offs, in triplicate – with the Apple CEO, John Sculley (played by Jeff Daniels), with the company’s slighted co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) and with the daughter Jobs initially refuses to accept as his.

There is nothing for Danny Boyle to do except bring his customary visual flash-bang-wallop direction to the material. His approach here is to shoot everything as though it’s taking place inside a giant computer. But snazzy production design can’t disguise the obviousness of the questions posed. (Do geniuses have a responsibility to be good people? What is the legacy of our time on Earth? Are our battles set from the second we are born?) Sorkin smothers any intrigue or ambiguity and signposts every irony. What he has written is a set of instructions, not a script. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 12 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the threat to Britain