I saw the trailer for this and was obsessed to see it. The buildup was amazing, and it was gathering nothing but great reviews. Then I saw it! And it was excellent… and also a bit underwhelming? And now it’s been two weeks since I’ve seen it, and I just don’t care to write about it. This was good and has a lot to offer… so why am I much more interested in writing about the new Fantastic Four than this? Still, write about it I must, or I’ll forget it completely and kick myself later. It is obviously pretty much the premier gay film of the year so far, after all….
…and then I wrote half of this review, then left it for a while and never finished it. Now I’ve watched the film again with a friend [who loved it], and am completing this review months later.
The deal is that this was all shot on an iPhone [as was the astonishing King Kelly, which no one cared about], and is directed by Sean Baker, who directed the pleasant surprise Starlet, which shares a lot of this film’s DNA. Both leads had no acting experience, and I suspect [though this is not confirmed] that they, and the other sex workers they run into on the street, are actual LA trans sex workers. If not, sure fooled me. Interestingly, the film looked fine on a movie screen, but on the HD of Netflix, it REALLY looked like it was shot on a phone.
We open on Christmas eve with our heroines, Sin-Dee and Alexandra, dividing a donut bought with the last of their money. Alexandra lets slip that Sin-Dee’s boyfriend, Chester, has been cheating on her with a white biological women while she was in jail, causing Sin-Dee to storm out looking for him, followed by Alexandra, who makes her promise that there will be no drama. But of course, we all know that there will be some serious drama. They go for awhile, looking for Chester, when it suddenly occurs to Sin-Dee that she should look for the woman in question and punish her.
SPOILERS > > >
Then the film throws in a surprise character not shown at all in the trailer, which is this Armenian cab driver, Razmik. Starlet also had a surprise character, and held a lot of secrets up its sleeve before revealing them to the audience, which I appreciated both there and here. For now we just meet him and periodically check back with him as he goes about his day. Meanwhile, Sin-Dee asks a woman waiting in a line of homeless waiting for a meal where the woman is, and when the woman says “I’ve been clean for 30 days,” Sin-Dee walks off with a strident “Don’t give a shit!” She soon finds the woman and this is the first of numerous indelible scenes of LA street life that… gosh, I didn’t know this kind of thing existed. There is a roadside motel room presided over by an obese female pimp, and there are about five couples having sex in every available space… in the closet, in the corner, on the toilet, in the shower… it’s just like, every nook in which she looks there are more people having sex. I found it quite creepy! Anyway, she finds the woman in question, Dinah, and drags her out by her hair. The pimp says that Dinah will no longer be welcome to work there, because she “made trouble.” Sin-Dee takes Dinah to the street and essentially beats her for quite a while. She then starts dragging her to find Chester.
Meanwhile, Alexandra, who has walked away from Sin-Dee when the drama started, lands a trick in a car. He has only $40, but she agrees to tug him off. One of the best lines of the film is when the guy, not exactly a sex god, tells her “You know you want it” and she deadpans “Oh, you see right through me.” He can’t get off, and they end up in a physical fight when he won’t pay her. They draw the attention of two cops, who start by taking Alexandra’s pulse to see if she is on speed. She ends up not getting paid.
Meanwhile, we discover how Razmik fits into the story when he picks up a prostitute, but is surprised to find that she is actually a woman. He kicks her out, telling her she shouldn’t be working in that area. He then picks up Alexandra, whom he obviously knows, and they go to a car wash, where Razmik sucks her off. So that’s a bit of a surprise: Razmik wants dick. He then goes home, where his wife and mother-in-law are having a Christmas celebration. After just a short time there, he wants to leave and go to Alexandra’s singing gig, because he’s heard that Sin-Dee will be there. This causes a huge ruckus with his mother-in-law, Ahken, who ends up following him. Interestingly, Razmik says Christmas doesn’t matter because they’re not American, but Ashken counters that they live in America now and it’s part of assimilating.
Sin-Dee realizes that she’s missing Alex’s show, and she and Dinah bypass the Donut Time [where she hears that Chester is hanging out] and heads to the show. There, in the restroom, Dinah pulls out some meth [presumably? I'm not really up on my street drugs] and she and Sin-Dee smoke it, which is funny, as they’ve been bitter enemies up til now. Alex’s show, a maudlin version of “Toyland,” a musical theme heard throughout the film, nearly stops the movie dead, but thankfully we soon move on. On the bus afterward, it is revealed that Alexandra actually paid the venue to sing, not the other way around.
It all comes to a head at Donut Time, where all parties meet up. Sin-Dee soon forgives Chester, but Razmik shows up, followed by Ashken, who calls his wife, who also shows. It’s a good, funny, madcap scene with lots of good lines, and the always-fun dynamic of men in drag throwing shade at straight people, like when Ashken is screaming at Razmik to apologize to the wife, and Sin-Dee says yeah, he should apologize for taking her to a horrible hairdresser. Eventually the Armenians leave, and we part from Razmik with him sitting alone in his apartment.
Then, outside the Donut Time, it is revealed that Alexandra also slept with Chester while Sin-Dee was in jail. Sin-Dee storms off. Alexandra follows her. A car of tricks calls to Sin-Dee, but throw what is apparently urine in her face, and drive off screaming epithets. Alexandra takes her to the Laundromat, where Sin-Dee is forced to remove her wig, and we see her as male for the first time. They sit together, and finally Alexandra takes off her own wig, letting us see her as male, and lets Sin-Dee borrow her wig. Sin-Dee reaches out, they hold hands, the end.
< < < SPOILERS END
So, it’s very good. It is definitely among the best films of the year. What I like most about it is that you definitely feel—whether this is true or not, I have no way of knowing—that you are getting an authentic look at the life of transgender sex workers in LA. What comes across powerfully is that they are always on the move, never in one spot for long, are part of a subculture that is always in motion [around the same area] and always on the hustle. It comes across that they live lives of near-constant degradation and are interacting with people who treat them as being of little value. The movie delineates a subtle and shifting balance between protecting and respecting each other, and ditching all of that for the prospect of making a little money or getting ahead in some way. A lot of the brilliant humor of the movie comes from the sharp dialogue and callousness to how grim and horrible life on the street actually is. Another huge strength of the film is simply showing this subculture that we pretty much never see otherwise.
All that said, there’s just something a little unexciting about it. It could just be me. I mean, here you have a one-of-a-kind movie set in an unexplored subculture that was ingeniously made for very little money and it’s a miracle it exists at all and yet… yup, there it is. If you imagine a movie about a day in the life of transgender sex workers, you’d probably imagine a movie pretty much exactly like this one [barring the unexpected contrast with Armenian immigrants]. So it might just be lacking a certain je ne sais quoi in terms of wild inspiration, but again, one of the best films of 2015 and quite unlike almost anything else, and you pretty much need to watch it.