#TBThursday Review: The Work of ‘TANGERINE’ Director Sean Baker


FullSizeRenderPreston Barta // Features Editor

There’s something unique about the films Sean Baker makes: they introduce audiences to worlds that many are unfamiliar with. For example, in his upcoming film TANGERINE, Baker drops you in the underbelly of Los Angeles and takes you on a thrilling adventure with two transgender prostitutes. In his earlier work, his films contain multi-faceted narratives that open your eyes to what rich stories have never been told. His films are far from being your average cinematic story. He dives deep and goes beyond what most filmmakers these days go.

So, while you gear up for the release of TANGERINE tomorrow, let’s look back at some of the great films he has made.

FullSizeRender(1)STARLET (2012)
Writer: Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch
Cast: Dree Hemingway, Besedka Johnson, Stella Maeve, James Ransone and Karren Karagulian

First up is STARLET, the film that brought Baker and his TANGERINE co-writer, Chris Bergoch, together. This film, like TANGERINE, focuses on something different and more out of the ordinary. The story follows a porn actress named Jane (an excellent Dree Hemingway) who is simply trying to make ends meet in a cruel world. She’s living with her two deadbeat roommates (James Ransone and Stella Maeve), one of whom is also an actress of the industry. But more than exploring the life of a porn actress and the hardships attached to the life, STARLET is about an unlikely friendship and how that friendship can often lead to something substantial.

Perhaps this happened to you before: you shared a conversation with a stranger who was seemingly very different from yourself, but you were later amazed by how much you had in common. Maybe you even became very close with that person. This is what happened in this film between Jane and an older woman named Sadie (the great and sidesplitting Besedka Johnson).

More interestingly is the questions the film forces you to ask yourself if you were in the shoes of these characters. In the film, after purchasing a “vase” from Sadie, Jane finds over $10,000 inside. Did Sadie not realize the money was in there? Or, did she know it was in there and wanted to do something nice for someone? How does Jane react to all of this? What would you do? Hopefully these questions lead you on a merry goose chase to find this film and watch it– as you should, because it takes you on an entertaining trip that paints a big smile on your face.

FullSizeRender(2)PRINCE OF BROADWAY (2008)
Writer: Sean Baker and Darren Dean
Cast: Prince Adu, Karren Karagulian, Aiden Noesi, Keyali Mayaga and Victoria Tate

PRINCE OF BROADWAY is my personal favorite of his three films we are talking about today. It shows that sometimes you don’t always need a big budget or A-list actors to achieve greatness. For Baker and his co-writer, Darren Dean, all it took was a camera, some people with no acting experience whatsoever (who are all really good, by the way), and just a good story.

This particular story follows a New York City street hustler named Lucky (Prince Adu) who gets an unwelcome surprise when a woman drops off a baby that may or may not be his. From there we see our protagonist go through stages of denial to acceptance, while also getting insight into the hustling life.

We see Lucky invite people off the streets to come into a “behind-the-counter” store that carries Louis Vuitton purses, the most in-style shoes– you name it. But this aspect of the story only serves as the backdrop– the real meat of the story comes from the unbreakable bond between a father and his child.

PRINCE OF BROADWAY has a grand sense of realism and it captures this foreign world magnificently. It’s an engaging presentation of a gut-wrenchingly powerful tale.

FullSizeRender(3)TAKE OUT (2004)
Writer: Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou
Cast: Charles Jang, Jeng-Hua Yu, Wang-Thye Lee, Justin Wan and Jeff Huang

Baker’s sophomore film, TAKE OUT, is one of his grittier films. Like PRINCE OF BROADWAY, Baker doesn’t use top of the line cameras or actors to lure in audiences– it’s just another case of damn good storytelling.

TAKE OUT centers on an illegal Chinese immigrant named Ming Ding (Charles Jang) who falls behind on payments for a smuggling debt. So in order to save himself from the sharks, he has to come up with $800 before the end of the day by borrowing and delivering for a Chinese take out.

Yes, this may put for a rather simple story, but there is more within than what lies on the surface. The tension Baker and his co-writer, Shih-Ching Tsou, create is astonishing. They serve up an authentic slice of life by showing audiences the harsh reality of immigrant life.

TAKE OUT is an impressive sweep with a nuanced message of hope to inspire and challenge filmgoers.

STARLET, PRINCE OF BROADWAY and TAKE OUT are all available for purchase, while you can check out TANGERINE tomorrow in NY and CA theaters (opens in Dallas on 7/24).

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About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.