The summary of Lingua Franca below could mislead you into expecting some sort of topical melodrama, featuring the big issues of today blown up to cinema scale. Instead, the film is a slow-paced, slice-of-life indie – that life simply happens to be one pushed to the farthest margins of American society, governed by all the anxieties that entails.
These anxieties, for Olivia (writer-director-star Isabel Sandoval) are overwhelmingly inflicted by the banal evil of the state. She is paying an American man for a green-card marriage, and must rigorously document their relationship to withstand inspection. Until she has a green card, as we see through her newlywed friend Trixie (Ivory Aquino), she cannot change her legal name or gender to reflect her identity. The threat of violence hangs over everything: men in bars toss around transphobic slurs, and ICE are always just around the corner.
This slice of life is a grinding, exhausting cycle that Olivia can barely control, but Sandoval nonetheless maintains her agency throughout. Olivia’s attraction to, and then relationship with, Alex (Eamon Farren) is grounded in Olivia’s pleasure; sex and masturbation here are sensual without being made into leering erotica. Olivia’s strength is only emphasised when we switch to Alex’s perspective for the film’s third quarter: his own cycle is one of failure and apology, as he continually loses his grip on opportunities to grow, and inevitably hurts those around him.
Lingua Franca could be an absolutely crushing film, with its atmosphere of anxiety and its characters trapped in cycles. Sandoval is not working in the medium of hope, but there is nonetheless warmth and compassion in this trans, working class, migrant love story. Lingua Franca is a potent example of what can be achieved when those who are really silenced by our bigoted society make their voices heard.
CAST: Isabel Sandoval, Eamon Farren, Lynn Cohen, Ivory Aquino
DIRECTOR: Isabel Sandoval
WRITER: Isabel Sandoval
SYNOPSIS: Olivia, an undocumented Filipino trans woman, works as a caregiver to Olga, an elderly Russian woman, in Brooklyn. When Olivia runs out of options to attain legal status in the US, she becomes romantically involved with Alex, Olga’s adult grandson, in pursuit of a green card.