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Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in Tangerine, a Magnolia Pictures release.

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★★★★★

Tangerine

Directed by Sean Baker

Starring Mya Taylor, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Karren Karagulian

Rated R

Opens Friday July 17 at Kendall Square Cinema

I know that “heart-warming” isn’t an adjective you’d usually associate with a movie set around the sex-trade industry in Los Angeles, but let me tell you, Tangerine is a heart-warming film — forgiveness and acceptance are key themes throughout the movie.

Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) are best friends — they gossip, they have breakfast together, they help each other with their makeup. But as with all friendships, they have their ups and downs. Tangerine follows the women through downtown Los Angeles as they deal with a Christmas Eve full of intense drama.

Over breakfast, Alexandra informs Sin-Dee that her pimp/boyfriend Chester had been cheating on her while she was in jail (Sin-Dee spent 28 days behind bars after taking the fall for Chester during a drug bust). Naturally, the girls band together to find Chester and the girl he cheated with. It isn’t long before Alexandra becomes overwhelmed by Sin-Dee’s revenge-driven melodrama and the pair go their separate ways for the rest of the afternoon.

Later, we meet Razmik (Karren Karagulian) who is an Armenian cab driver, and we see him as he ferries tourists, drunk party goers, and various elderly customers around L.A. We discover that he has a dangerous secret and a problematic, overbearing mother-in-law. At first, it isn’t clear how Razmik’s story is connected to Sin-Dee’s or Alexandra’s, but all is revealed in due course.

Razmik leaves early during a family Christmas Eve dinner, and his suspicious mother-in-law follows him around the city. The storylines coalesce at a donut shop no less, in an intense, unfortunate, and hilarious fashion. It was at about this point in the film that I really had to ask myself, “What on Earth am I watching?” I hadn’t laughed so hard in weeks. I later found out that the very night this debacle of a scene was filmed, the Golden Globe Awards ceremony was being held only blocks away from the donut shop, which made it all the better.

Tangerine is an impressive independent film for a couple of reasons.

First, it is refreshingly respectful and non-judgemental. We know that Sin-Dee and Alexandra (and many other characters in the film) are transgender prostitutes, but Baker doesn’t make the mistake of using that fact to disrespect or make light of the women — the film focuses on people and their relationships, and on making mistakes and being human. Baker cast Mya Taylor, an L.A. native and transgender woman he met at the LGBTQ Center in Hollywood, as Alexandra. Taylor grew up in the area the film was shot, and helped Baker choose realistic film sites for the movie. Baker, Taylor, and Bergoch (co-screenwriter) did extensive research on criminal activity in the area. Once the group got the lay of the land, they put their boots on the ground talking to real life transgender prostitutes and scoping out places where all sorts of less-than-legal businesses are conducted. Taylor brought her friend, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, a transgender mentor, into the picture to star as Sin-Dee. Both women clearly care immensely about transgender issues — the realism of the film was a sticking point for the pair — and the film couldn’t have been more appropriately cast.

Second, the entire film was shot on three iPhone 5s phones using an $8 app called Filmic Pro and anamorphic adapters which complemented the incredibly authentic-feeling story and excellent casting. The choice of iPhones over more traditional and ostentatious filmmaking equipment allowed the film crew to avoid attention and shooting permits. However, Baker revealed that the low profile gear combined with excellent acting proved to be a slight problem during an intense argument scene on a public bus where the bus driver called the police, unaware that the fight was staged.

Tangerine is a must-see film — I’m stingy with my stars, and I give this movie all five. It’s only scheduled to be in town until July 23, so catch it while it’s showing at Kendall Square Cinema.