Transgender sex worker Sin-Dee Rella, who has just finished a 28-day prison sentence, meets her friend Alexandra, another trans sex worker, at a donut shop in Hollywood on Christmas Eve. Alexandra accidentally reveals that Sin-Dee's boyfriend and pimp Chester has been cheating on her with a cisgender woman. Sin-Dee storms out to search the neighborhood for Chester and the woman.
Alexandra hands out flyers for her musical performance that evening, and argues with a client who refuses to pay; their argument is broken up by the police. Razmik, an Armenian cab driver, picks up a prostitute, but ejects her from his cab when he discovers she is not transgender. He meets Alexandra and fellates her in a car wash, then goes home to eat Christmas dinner with his family. Alexandra goes to the bar for her performance, but no customers have arrived.
Sin-Dee finds the woman she is looking for, Dinah, at a brothel in a motel. She hauls her onto a bus to find Chester. Dinah taunts her for believing she is Chester's only girlfriend. Sin-Dee realizes she is late for Alexandra's performance and drags Dinah there. The two smoke crystal meth in the bar bathroom and Sin-Dee applies Dinah's make-up. Alexandra performs to a mostly empty bar.
Razmik leaves his family to attend Alexandra's performance, saying he has to work, but discovers he is too late and searches for Sin-Dee. Suspicious, his mother-in-law asks another Armenian cab driver to take her to him.
Sin-Dee, Alexandra and Dinah go to the donut shop, where Sin-Dee confronts Chester. He insists Dinah means nothing to him. Razmik arrives, followed by his mother-in-law; she calls Razmik's wife, who arrives with their infant daughter. An argument escalates until the shop owner calls the police. Razmik and his family go back to their apartment. Dinah walks back to the brothel, but is told there is no room for her.
Outside the donut shop, Chester tells Sin-Dee that he also slept with Alexandra. Hurt, Sin-Dee leaves and tries to pick up some clients; they throw urine in her face and drive away shouting transphobic slurs. Alexandra takes Sin-Dee to a laundromat to clean her clothes and wig, and gives her her own wig to wear while they wait.
Mark Duplass approached Sean Baker for a new project after Baker had viewed films at the New Zealand Film Festival. The film was executive-produced by the Duplass Brothers, and produced by Through Films, Darren Dean, and Shih-Ching Tsou.
Baker and Chris Bergoch collaborated on the screenplay for Tangerine from September through December 2013. Baker and Bergoch met transgender actresses Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, who had no major acting experience, at a Los Angeles LGBT Center in 2013.
Principal photography for Tangerine took place in Hollywood, California (including West Hollywood clubs and Santa Monica Boulevard) on Christmas Eve 2013 and wrapped on January 18, 2014. After viewing iPhone experiments on Vimeo, Baker and Radium Cheung shot the film using three iPhone 5s smartphones. The money saved on camera equipment was used to pay for shooting locations and to pay extras. They used the FiLMIC Pro app, a video app (to control focus, aperture and color temperature, as well as capture video clips at higher bit-rates) and an anamorphic adapter from Moondog Labs (to capture widescreen). They also used Tiffen's Steadicam Smoothee to capture smooth moving shots.
Baker used Final Cut Pro for a preliminary look of the film and Da Vinci Resolve to correct contrast and saturation.
Tangerine made its world premiere January 23, 2015 at the Sundance Film Festival as part of their NEXT program. Magnolia Pictures bought world rights to the film on January 27, 2015 and confirmed they planned releasing the film later in 2015. The film went on to screen at the San Francisco International Film Festival on May 6, 2015. the Seattle International Film Festival on June 4, 2015 and the Oak Cliff Film Festival on June 11, 2015. The film had its Australian debut at the Sydney Film Festival on June 12, 2015.
The film then played at the Provincetown International Film Festival on June 17, 2015 and the BAMcinemaFest on June 28, 2015. and in the Czech Republic the film premiered at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival on July 8, 2015. The film was released in a North American limited release on July 10, 2015. The film was released in the United Kingdom on November 13, 2015, by Metrodome Group.
Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 97% of 134 surveyed film critics gave the film a positive review; the average rating is 8/10. The site's consensus reads "Tangerine shatters casting conventions and its filmmaking techniques are up-to-the-minute, but it's an old-fashioned comedy at heart -- and a pretty wonderful one at that." On Metacritic, it has a score of 85 out of 100 based on 32 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim." The Hollywood Reporter described the film as "a singularly delightful girlfriend movie with an attitude". Variety's Justin Chang wrote that Tangerine is "an exuberantly raw and up-close portrait of one of Los Angeles' more distinctive sex-trade subcultures." A.V. Wire's Seth Malvín Romero said, "Tangerine is a stylistic tour-de-force. An original, dazzling, and unforgettable portrayal of betrayal and friendship that easily bests any other film this year." In a positive review, The A.V. Club's Ignatiy Vishnevetsky wrote that "for all of Tangerine's movement [...] and all of its slapping and arguing, it's the movie's quietest, softest moments that register most strongly." He concludes, "Perhaps these moments feel so graceful because they are oases; they matter because of the harsh, unforgiving terrain that has to be crossed in order to reach them. This terrain is drawn garishly, vividly, and with a sense of fun."
The first Academy Awards campaigns for openly transgender actresses supported by a film producer were launched for this film, in 2015, for actresses Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, though neither was nominated.2015 – Audience Award, Gotham Independent Film Awards
2015 – Best Supporting Actress (Mya Taylor), San Francisco Film Critics Circle Award
2015 – Breakthrough Actor (Mya Taylor), Gotham Independent Film Awards
2015 – Directors to Watch (Sean S. Baker), Palm Springs International Film Festival
2015 – Forum of Independents Award, Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
2015 – Stanley Kubrick Award, Traverse City Film Festival
2015 – Prix Nouvelles Vagues au Festival international du film de La Roche-sur-Yon (France)