Venice 2019 review: Lingua Franca (Isabel Sandoval)

Unassuming on the surface, Isabel Sandoval’s third feature (although her debut as a woman) Lingua Franca quietly packs a few punches as it deals with its topical subject matter. Tackling both the tough crackdown on immigrants in the US as well as the acceptance of transgenders under the guise of an unexpected romance, Sandoval’s film, which she also produced, edited, and starred in, makes bold and sobering statements while never becoming preachy.

Sandoval herself stars as Olivia, a transgender Filipino caregiver for Olga (Lynn Cohen), an elderly woman living in Brighton Beach, New York. In an attempt to obtain a green card Olivia enters an arrangement with Matthew to get married in exchange for money. Then Olga’s grandson Alex (Eamon Farren) enters the picture, returning to the city after an extended period and dealing with alcoholism and the psychological aftermath of a car accident he caused while inebriated. After initially keeping each other at arm’s length, Alex soon falls for the hesitant Olivia, unaware of her transgender background. Once he finds out, his life is turned upside down and reaches a decisive point, while Olivia suddenly finds herself in a position where she has the option to marry someone who might actually love her. As Alex tries to clean up his act, Olivia needs to find out if he is being totally honest with her.

Never devolving into melodrama, Lingua Franca underscores the constant fear Filipino immigrants like Olivia and her sister Trixie (Ivory Aquino) live in. Trixie has actually managed to secure legal status by marrying an American man, but worries about her sister. News reports and interview fragments sprinkled throughout the film are perhaps not the most subtle way to underline the problem, but they do function as a good reminder of the mindset of Trump’s America. What doubles the stakes for Olivia is that she is a transgender woman whose passport still labels her as a man, making it even harder for her to achieve legality. She never outwardly shows this fear until she loses her passport and her prospective husband Matthew informs her that he has met another woman.

Where the film excels is in the earnest depiction of the central relationship and the acceptance, after an initial understandable hesitance, of Olivia as a woman. While society as a whole has not come that far and the slow acceptance of transgenders by the mainstream has been a phenomenon of the last five to ten years – and thus the film could be seen as some kind of wish fulfillment – the way the relationship between Olivia and Alex evolves is quick but believable enough to serve as a template for other transgender relationships in film. Until now, most cinematic output dealing with the subject has focused on the deep and dark emotional turmoil of transgender people, last year’s Girl by Lukas Dhont the latest example of this. While Olivia navigating society as a transgender woman is not shown to be without issues, it is exactly Alex’s acceptance and also Olivia’s sexuality and sensuality as a woman that make Lingua Franca a good step towards ‘normalizing’ transgendered relationships in film, and perhaps by extension in society as a whole.

Sandoval’s own experiences were likely key in the portrayal of Olivia, and the character feels lived in from start to finish. Her natural, calm performance contrasts nicely with Farren’s slightly more mannered and frantic Alex (perfectly fitting the character). Their chemistry is strong enough to overcome their differences. Sandoval’s direction, meanwhile, is as sober as her performance, the only flourish perhaps several scenes where characters have conversations while not facing each other, which highlights the problems we sometimes have talking about delicate issues. It’s unlikely Lingua Franca will make it far outside the festival circuit, but in the still small genre of films dealing with transgender issues it feels like a milestone, a film that finally looks at the problems society as a whole inflicts on them instead of their problems coming from within their own psychology.