Greetings again from the darkness. It’s hard to imagine a better choice for opening night of the 4th annual Oak Cliff Film Festival. After all, this year’s theme is the “No Wave Movement” of the late 1970’s, and writer/director Sean Baker’s most recent film (and a Sundance favorite) is the perfect complement. Co-written with Chris Bergoch and filmed entirely on iPhone 5s’ (with cinematic apps), this gritty, no-frills film spotlights real problems of real people on a real day … on the real streets of Hollywood and Los Angeles.
Personally, I haven’t seen many (ok, any) films that focus on two transgender prostitutes (both, persons of color). However, the exciting thing is that the story pays little attention to the vocation of Sin-Dee and Alexandra, and is more a story of friendship, heartbreak, and the sub-cultures that make up a particular community of the L.A. area. This is not the glitzy/celebrity side of Hollywood, but rather the underbelly of a melting pot city where the paths of transgender streetwalkers and Armenian cab drivers intersect.
Sin-Dee (Kiki Kitana Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) are opposite personality types, but clearly good friends as they chat while splitting a donut in the opening scene. We quickly learn that Sin-Dee is fresh out of jail after serving 28 days, and she doesn’t react well to Alexandra’s news that their pimp (and Sin-Dee’s boyfriend) Chester (James Ransone) has been cheating with a “natural” woman (played by a very talented Mickey O’Hagan) while she was incarcerated. A woman scorned provides the energy of the film as Sin-Dee tracks down this mysterious girl whose name starts with a “D”. It also provides new meaning for dragging someone all over town (kudos to Ms O’Hagan for the physicality and bruises).
The sassy banter is filled with brutal put-downs and smart-ass comebacks, as the three actresses play off each other as if loaded with short-fused fireworks. The story with taxi driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian) shows a family man drawn like a magnet to the world of Sin-Dee and Alexandra … he even finds a reason to skip out on Christmas Eve dinner with his family. His mother-in-law Ashken (Alla Tumanian) is most suspicious of his activities, and that leads to the frenetic and hilarious confrontation at Donut Time.
Many individual scenes are funny, while others are tension-filled. There is even a scene in Razmik’s cab featuring veteran actor Clu Gulager (“The Virginian”), and Armenian celebrity Arsen Grigoryan plays another taxi driver. The acting throughout is strong and humanistic, and the iPhone photography is shocking in its depth and range … we would never suspect the “equipment” being used. This approach allowed for the organic feel of the street – think of Banksy making a movie … clandestine with no sets (or permits). Baker’s style is reminiscent of John Waters and John Cassavetes, and that’s quite a compliment. The film also features the pitch perfect description of Los Angeles: “a beautifully wrapped lie”.