There’s a simultaneous delicacy and straightforwardness to “Lingua Franca” that stamps Isabel Sandoval’s third feature with a distinctive directorial sensibility — even if her script eventually muffles some of the film’s early promise. This low-key drama about a trans Filipina looking for love (and a green card) while working as a domestic in Brooklyn is low-key in the right ways, utilizing subtlety and suggestion in place of spelled-out backstories or case pleading. After a while, however, we need more emotional payoff than Sandoval is willing to provide. Nonetheless, this U.S.-Philippines co-production is well worth a look for niche programmers and distributors in various formats.
The writer-director is also the lead performer here, given an “introducing” credit (prior features “Senorita” and “Apparition” were credited to Vincent Sandoval). We don’t know at what point her character Olivia underwent a gender transition, though she’s known fellow émigré Trixie (Ivory Aquino) since their shared childhood in the Cebu province. Trixie is introduced marrying a handsome New Yorker, an apparent love match that gets her well en route to the American Dream, 21st-century edition. But Sandoval’s Olivia, whose wages support a frequently-calling mother and other relatives back home, hasn’t attracted that kind of benefactor. Instead, she’s paying a man to marry her in order to attain citizenship. When that plan unravels, she’s frantic, particularly as anti-immigrant rhetoric and news of ICE raids seem to be everywhere.
After all, forced deportation is exactly what happened to the last woman who took care of Olga (Lynn Cohen), the senile old lady for whom she acts as live-in caretaker. Newly joining their Brighton Beach household is Olga’s grandson Alex (Eamon Farren), a past ne’er-do-well trying to get back on his feet after a stint at a Midwestern rehab center. To that end, he’s been handed a job at an uncle’s meatpacking operation, and a spare room at grandma’s, in exchange for filling in when Olivia has time off. He’s not exactly a born caregiver (or teetotaler, for that matter), but he’s willing to make an effort.
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Once they get to know each other a bit better, an initially awkward vibe between he and Olivia turns to physical passion. What seems a mutual sexual outlet for two starved individuals just might even grow into something else. But that prospect is complicated when one of Alex’s old party pals snoops around her identification papers, then informs him that she’s a “tranny.”
This ought to push the hitherto quiet, indirectly revealing tale in more assertive narrative directions, but somehow it doesn’t. Alex’s contradictory actions and Olivia’s responses (even after she figures out what he knows) only obfuscate their relationship when it should come into sharp focus, for good or bad. Nor does the ambiguous fadeout offer much satisfaction. To a point, Sandoval’s
commitment to intriguing understatement comes off as intelligent restraint. In the end, though, a little head-on confrontation and plot resolution surely wouldn’t have hurt.
Still, “Lingua Franca” is notable not just for the deftness of its overall assembly and performances, but for its approaching hot-button issues of the moment (the status/rights of both transpersons and undocumented workers) in ways that are insightful without being heavy-handed. While all the well-acted figures here are presented with a lot of explicatory blanks, the reliable Cohen is particularly fine at making her character seem fully realized — despite the fact that Olga often barely knows who or where she is.
In his first feature as DP, Isaac Banks’ lensing underlines the film’s best points, combining atmospheric urban grit and elegant simplicity. The film isn’t quite pared-down enough to qualify as minimalist, but it’s typical of its economy of means that you don’t even notice Teresa Barrozo’s score until it accompanies the closing credits.