Much is ironically left unsaid in Lingua Franca, Isabel Sandoval’s third feature which became the first film written and directed by a trans woman of colour to headline the Venice Film Festival in 2019. Stories remain untold, motivations are cloudy, and the nature of the titular lingua franca (a bridge language between speakers whose native languages are different) is oblique. But if Sandoval’s script doesn’t always provide much to cling on to, her tender, restrained performance and direction make her a talent to watch.
Olivia (played by Sandoval herself, though the film is not autobiographical) is a trans woman and undocumented Filipina immigrant working as a live-in carer for Olga (Lynn Cohen), an elderly Russian-American woman living in New York’s Brighton Beach. She has precious little time for herself; we first meet her being woken up early by a phone call from her mother back home in the Philippines asking when Olivia will send her allowance over. Sandoval intersperses the call with wide shots of empty pre-dawn streets, a subway station and the boardwalk; Olivia’s day begins with loneliness and dislocation. Later, her face is partially reflected in two mirrors as she washes her face, showing multiple identities at work, strands of herself being pulled in different directions. She can’t officially change her name until she becomes a documented citizen.
Olga’s grandson is thirty something Alex (Eamon Farren), a recovering alcoholic back in Brooklyn after a family intervention sent him to work on an Ohio farm. A new job in his uncle’s abattoir comes on the condition of living with and helping to care for his grandmother, and so he and Olivia find themselves unexpectedly under the same roof.
Like the film itself, Olga’s flat is sparse and quiet, imbued with memories becoming ever more distant. “When am I going home?” she asks Olivia, who has to remind her that this is her home, that this is her wallpaper, her cooker, all the pieces that encompass her history as a Russian immigrant. Meanwhile, Olivia is attempting to secure her future by paying a man for a green card marriage while every day she witnesses ICE officers closing in on undocumented immigrants, both on the street in front of her or via traumatic news footage. Sandoval gives us a sense that Olivia and Olga’s shared dislocation will be pivotal, but Olga is abruptly abandoned by the plot to make room for Olivia and Alex’s burgeoning relationship.
The excellent Sandoval and Farren have undeniably great chemistry and their mutual attraction is believable from the get-go. Olivia’s quiet resolve provokes and is a good match for Alex’s curiosity and flirtatiousness, and his large eyes set within a sharp, eagle-like face can make his appearance switch from vulnerability to manipulation at a moment’s notice. The question of whether Olivia can or should accept Alex’s love, and if that love is genuine and free of transphobia, hangs, unspoken, over the second half.
Though perhaps a little too muted for its own good and sometimes the victim of clunky exposition, Lingua Franca doesn’t quite soar, but it does have genuinely moving moments charting Olivia’s introspective attempts to gain and hold on to affection and acceptance in a harsh, intolerant world. It must also be stated unequivocally that in a time of virulent transphobia the visibility of a transgender filmmaker telling the story of a transgender character, perhaps especially a story that is not wholly focused on their gender identity, is vital.
Lingua Franca is out in select cinemas and streaming on Netflix from August 26th
by Laura Venning
Laura Venning is a Film Studies MA student from London. She’s particularly interested in female directors and Australian and New Zealand cinema. Her favourite films include A Matter of Life and Death, The Piano, Picnic at Hanging Rock and Cléo from 5 to 7. You can find her on twitter at @laura_venning