Tan­ger­ine, campy comedic thriller, rated R, Vi­o­let Crown, 3 chiles

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Prob­a­bly more than any other group, trans­gen­dered pros­ti­tutes of color must have a solid grasp on dif­fer­ing lev­els of so­ci­etal power and priv­i­lege, as well as mul­ti­lay­ered ar­ti­fice. Sex work­ers are skilled ac­tresses, fak­ing plea­sure and en­thu­si­asm for cash. And if the cus­tomer is white and the sex worker is not, another level of def­er­ence of­ten has to be per­formed for one’s own safety. (Trans­gen­dered pros­ti­tutes of color are more likely to be vic­tims of vi­o­lence than other sex work­ers.) But ar­ti­fice isn’t all bad: At its camp­i­est, it can be highly en­ter­tain­ing, and it’s a pro­tec­tive bar­rier be­tween in­di­vid­ual and world. Many women en­act ar­ti­fice daily when they ap­ply makeup, a so­cially en­cour­aged mask that makes it eas­ier to look — and there­fore act — in­vin­ci­ble, re­gard­less of how you feel in­side.

Tan­ger­ine, co-writ­ten by Sean Baker and Chris Ber­goch and di­rected by Baker, stars new­com­ers Ki­tana Kiki Ro­driguez and Mya Tay­lor as Sin-Dee and Alexan­dra, re­spec­tively, best friends and pros­ti­tutes in Hol­ly­wood. It’s Christ­mas Eve, and Sin-Dee, who has just been re­leased from a month in jail, finds out that Ch­ester (James Ran­sone), her boyfriend/pimp, has been cheat­ing on her with a white “fish” — a bi­o­log­i­cal woman. She fu­ri­ously sets out to find her, armed only with the in­for­ma­tion that her name be­gins with D. Alexan­dra doesn’t want to get in­volved in the an­gry drama, since she is pre­par­ing to sing that night at a bar. (When another char­ac­ter refers to the per­for­mance as a drag show, she is un­equiv­o­cally cor­rected: Alexan­dra is not a drag queen.)

The Los An­ge­les of Tan­ger­ine is gritty and dark. The liv­ing spa­ces are cramped — apart­ments in­hab­ited by im­mi­grant fam­i­lies and cheap mo­tel rooms for turn­ing tricks and smok­ing meth or crack. The char­ac­ters drive cabs and ride buses; they con­duct busi­ness out of a dough­nut shop. No one in the film is purely bad or good, or even try­ing to be one way or the other. They are mak­ing choices that show how fluid our iden­ti­ties re­ally are and how we all need pro­tect­ing. The small pieces of story build, of­ten re­ly­ing on the vis­ceral dis­com­fort of both char­ac­ter and viewer. Shot en­tirely on iPhones, Tan­ger­ine feels at once raw and so­phis­ti­cated, de­scrip­tions that also ap­ply to the act­ing skills of the pro­tag­o­nists. The per­for­mances are am­a­teur yet earnest, and as the plot picks up emo­tional heft, what has seemed like slightly forced line de­liv­ery and over-aware­ness of the cam­era be­come yet one more layer in the ar­ti­fice, re­vealed just as it be­gins to dis­solve. — Jen­nifer Levin

From left, Mya Tay­lor and Ki­tana Kiki Ro­driguez in Los An­ge­les

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