LINGUA FRANCA: FILM REVIEW
I found Lingua Franca after director Sean Baker wrote a review of the film on Letterboxd, where he said, “Written, directed, produced, edited and starring Isabel Sandoval. Pretty damn impressive.” I was hooked by the thought of Sandoval’s introspection into the film and its story, as both its subject, creator, and editor.
Directed by Isabel Sandoval, Lingua Franca tells the story of Olivia, a transgender Filipina (Isabel Sandoval), who works as a live-in caregiver to Olga (Lynn Cohen, who just passed away this year), a sweet and feisty elderly woman who expresses hints of dementia. Although Olivia’s life is constantly under stress as she tries to obtain legal residency in the States, Olivia is patient and always forgiving with Olga, emulating a calming presence throughout the film. Olivia parcels the money she makes from caregiving between her family back home, paying off a man who said he would marry her for citizenship, and saving whatever little remains for herself.
Olivia’s quaint space with Olga is interrupted by the introduction of Olga’s grandson, Alex (Eamon Farren), a handsome-ish younger man who just got out of rehab and is working as a butcher for his uncle. The tension between Olga and Alex doesn’t build up for long until a fiery passion erupts. It’s not clear who needs the other more: Olga, to put to rest her fears of being deported, or Alex, a lonely and lost individual who longs for someone to see him for who he really is.
Sandoval excels at ensuring that an aura of quiet anxiety and paranoia is sustained throughout the film. While Olivia’s present day might entail giving Olga a bath or laying in bed with Alex, the prospect of deportation is always at the forefront of her mind. Even if she slips away from that reality for just one second, it always finds a way to haunt her. Sandoval reflects this shadow-like prospect through curating scenes where the viewer feels they can finally let their guard down, just to put them right back on their toes again. In one scene, Alex and Olivia stop by Filipinotown together, and right when they’re about to leave, they turn the corner to see ICE violently pulling Filipino children away from their parents. Olivia is undoubtedly shaken, as she knows that if they had turned the corner just one second earlier, it could have been her.
While we often see Alex and Olivia on screen together, we also get glimpses into their separate lives, with scenes that purposefully cut in between those showing their intimate dynamic. Alex’s insecurities are obvious through the way he becomes immediately defensive at his family’s dinner table and through his weakness in being easily persuaded to drink alcohol, despite desiring to remain diligent on his path to sobriety. Behind the scenes, we see Olivia’s self-empowerment, as there is a lengthy and beautiful montage of her touching herself to Alex’s voice dictating her fictional fantasies. The unapologetic intimacy of a transgender woman pleasuring herself onscreen is a powerfully constructed narrative that aims to dispel quaint media norms.
Lingua Franca subtly integrates Olivia’s transgender identity with the very scary and realistic portrayal of living undocumented in Trump’s America. However, Olivia has no time in her life to be paralyzed by this fear, as she constantly has to hustle while simultaneously being reminded through the media and ICE raids that the U.S. government does not want her in this country. Olivia’s general, unearthed emotional presence acts as a facade to her suppressed, turbulent anxieties, which all eventually reach breaking points.
Sandoval knows exactly how to get into a viewer’s head, giving them just a small glimpse into the nightmarish realities of living unprotected in a country that dehumanizes immigrants and will unapologetically destroy the lives of others, all in the name of patriotism.