The modest, involving drama “Lingua Franca” is written, directed, produced, and edited by Isabel Sandoval, a transgender Filipina filmmaker. She also stars as Olivia, a caregiver for Olga (Lynn Cohen, underused), who is suffering from dementia. As the film opens, Olga’s grandson, Alex (Eamon Farren) has come to live with — and help care for Olga — as he gets his life back on track.
But Sandoval’s gentle drama does not focus on Olga; she is mainly a device to get these two very different people together. While Alex is cocky, a fuck-up who has a problem with alcohol and lacks self-control, Olivia is kind and patient — and terribly afraid of being deported. (News reports throughout the film didactically emphasize the dire situation for the undocumented in the US.) Adding to Olivia’s stress is the fact that the man she was planning to marry to get a green card and stay in the country is reneging on his offer.
“Lingua Franca” certainly sets up the possibility of Olivia and Alex getting married to keep her in the US, but Olivia will not ask this of him. The pair do, however, begin a romantic relationship. First, she has a fantasy about Alex caressing her when he reads aloud one of Olga’s love letters. After he drives her to the Filipino neighborhood and she describes her legal situation, she later, impulsively, kisses him. Alex quickly kisses her back. They soon have sex.
Alex, however, is unaware that Olivia is transgender, and the film milks some tension out of when and how he will learn this fact. The information is revealed in a clunky scene where one of Alex’s drunken friends raids Olivia’s room and discovers her passport. But the fact that he knows about her and she does not know he does provides some drama.
Sandoval may have an agenda, but “Lingua Franca” nicely shows how Alex, a straight, white, cisgender male, gains awareness and develops compassion for an undocumented Filipino trans woman. The film may have the makings of a white savoir story, but it only flirts with being a fairy tale. Instead, Sandoval steeps her film in the harsh reality of Olivia, exhausted at having to always live in fear of being caught by ICE.
“I feel them following me, watching my every move,” she says, heartbreakingly, before bursting into tears.
It is a raw and affecting moment.
Sandoval’s film could have used a few more powerful moments like this one. She does come close in a quiet scene in a hotel room late in the film that allows Olivia and Alex to absorb all that has passed between them. The director frames this shot artfully, as she does much of the film. The static images of Brighton Beach that open and close the film provide a real sense of place, and the way she frames characters in rooms and doorways or behind glass showcase Sandoval’s exceptional eye for composition and detail. There are many striking images.
But “Lingua Franca” features too many contrived moments that are frustrating. An episode where there is a power outage in the house feels forced, as do scenes of Alex wrestling or working a punching bag that seem designed to validate his masculinity. His character is designed to work at not drinking and being a better man. Alex only considers life in a new way after Alex he begins his relationship with Olivia. The impact she has on him is palpable, and Farren works at making that transformation convincing. There are times the actor seems natural—sitting at a party, thinking more about Olivia than the friends he is with—but there are moments where his performance feels rehearsed, most notably when he learns the truth about Olivia’s gender.
In contrast, Sandoval gives a very poignant and assured performance. She has some interesting exchanges with her mother, who calls periodically, asking for her allowance. Olivia also ships clothes to her family, indicating how much they rely on her to live and work and earn money in the States. There are even some sweet scenes between Olivia and her friend Trixie (Ivory Aquino), as these trans women sit in a church and recall once wanting to be altar boys.
But what comes across most in “Lingua Franca” is Olivia’s dignity. While she may feel the sword of Damocles hanging over her, she holds her head high, even when she overhears a transphobic remark out of one of Alex’s buddies.
Sandoval’s film isn’t perfect, but it provides a valuable insight into the experience of an undocumented transgender woman in Donald Trump’s America.
LINGUA FRANCA | Directed by Isabel Sandoval | ARRAY Releasing | Streaming on Netflix.com