Review: ‘Lingua Franca,’ starring Isabel Sandoval, Eamon Farren and Lynn Cohen

September 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Isabel Sandoval in “Lingua Franca” (Photo courtesy of Array)

“Lingua Franca”

Directed by Isabel Sandoval

Some language in Tagalog and Cebuano with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “Lingua Franca” features a racially diverse cast (white people and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A transgender woman, who is a caregiver and an undocumented immigrant from the Philippines, has a fear being deported, so she decides to find a willing U.S. citizen to marry, and begins a romantic relationship with her employer’s adult grandson.

Culture Audience: “Lingua Franca” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in an emotionally authentic “character study” story of a transgender woman who is living a quietly desperate life. 

Isabel Sandoval and Eamon Farren in “Lingua Franca” (Photo courtesy of Array)

It’s no secret that a lot of undocumented immigrants in the United States pay U.S. citizens to marry them in order for the immigrants to get resident alien status and a “green card” that allows the immigrants to legally work in the United States. While this illegal marriage arrangement has been depicted in several TV shows and movies, the dramatic film “Lingua Franca” is unique because it’s told from the perspective of an undocumented immigrant who is a transgender woman. Isabel Sandoval, who is a transgender woman in real life, is the writer, director, producer, editor and star of “Lingua Franca,” which is a realistic and low-key character study rather than a movie packed with contrived melodrama.

The term “lingua franca” means “something that is like a common language,” according to Webster’s New World College Dictionary. In the movie “Lingua Franca,” viewers can have their own opinions on what the “common language” is in the story. But it’s clear that the two lovers at the center of the story are both looking for love and acceptance in each other because they feel like “outsiders” in their own worlds.

The movie takes place in New York City during the first year or two of Donald Trump’s presidency, because news reports seen and heard in the movie talk about the Trump administration’s order for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to increase detentions and deportations of undocumented immigrants. There are racial overtones to these immigration crackdowns, since the vast majority of the undocumented immigrants being targeted for arrests, detentions and deportations are people of color, while the vast majority of ICE officials are white.

Sandoval plays Olivia, a transgender woman and undocumented immigrant from the Philippines. It’s not revealed in the movie how long Olivia has been living in the United States. Olivia has a Filipino accent, which suggests that she came to the U.S. as an adult.

Olivia is in her late 30s, and she currently lives in New York City’s Brooklyn borough, where she works as a responsible caregiver for an elderly American widow named Olga (played by Lynn Cohen), who is showing signs of dementia. Because of the rise in ICE arrests of undocumented immigrants, Olivia has become more paranoid about her immigration status being exposed.

Complicating matters is the fact that Olivia cannot change her gender and her name on her Philippines passport because of a law in the Philippines that does not allow transgender people to change their genders on government-issued identification. Therefore, she’s stuck in a complicated immigration limbo where she’s living her life as a woman in the United States, but the Philippines government officially classifies her as a man.

Olivia has a very quiet life that revolves around her job, since she has no family members in the area and she have very few friends. Olivia stays overnight in Olga’s home during the days of the week when Olivia works. Olga’s dementia has reached a point where she forgets that she’s in her own home. Olga sometimes calls on a house phone to ask Olivia to take her home, when Olga is already at home. Olivia patiently has to remind Olga to look at her surroundings in order to jog Olga’s memories and help Olga understand where she is.

Olivia’s closest friend is Katrina “Trixie” De La Fuente (played by Ivory Aquino), who’s also an undocumented immigrant from the Philippines. In one of the early scenes in the movie, Trixie gets married to a U.S. citizen named Daniel Cutler (played by Jake Soister), but it’s a legitimate marriage because they seem to be in love with each other. The wedding is a small ceremony (less than 50 people are in attendance) at a local courthouse.

Olivia’s date for the wedding is Matthew (played by Leif Steinert), who is also a U.S. citizen. It’s revealed later in the story that Olivia has been paying Matthew in installments, and once he has been paid in full, he has agreed to marry Olivia so that she can get her green card. But based on Matthew’s uncomfortable body language when he’s with Olivia at Trixie and Daniel’s wedding, Matthew is not feeling any close emotional connection with Olivia. What happens to Matthew and Olivia’s arrangement will come as no surprise to observant viewers.

Olivia has also been sending money to her mother in the Philippines. Her mother is heard, but not seen, in the movie by frequent phone conversations. (Helen Kwong is the voice of Olivia’s mother.) When Olivia’s mother calls her, it’s usually to find out when Olivia will be sending her money and to worry about Olivia’s immigration status in the United States. Her mother has heard about the increase in the number of ICE raids and arrests, so she tells tells Olivia to be careful.

Meanwhile, Olga’s grandson Alex (played by Eamon Farren), who’s in his late 20s, has returned to Brooklyn, where the rest of his immediate family lives. Alex was living on a farm in Ohio, but for whatever reason, he’s now back in Brooklyn. It’s not long before it’s revealed that Alex is an alcoholic and the “black sheep” of the family. He has an arrest record for driving under the influence: Before he moved to Ohio, Alex crashed his car into a bodega, and his family had to bail him out of jail for $5,000. It’s not stated how long ago this arrest happened, but it’s caused enough shame in his family that they consider his trustworthiness to be questionable.

Alex’s history of irresponsible behavior is one of the reasons why Alex’s uncle Murray (played by Lev Gorn) has reluctantly hired Alex to work as a trainee in the slaughterhouse where Murray is a supervisor to numerous employees, including Alex. Murray tells Alex that he only hired him as a favor to Alex’s mother, who is Murray’s sister. Murray warns Alex that Alex’s job is on a probation basis until Alex can prove that he’s a responsible and hard worker. He also tells Alex not to call him “uncle” when he’s on the job, because he doesn’t want the other workers to think that Alex is getting special treatment. Like an impish kid, Alex defies Murray’s request and calls him “uncle” anyway.

Alex and Olivia cross paths because now that Alex is living in Brooklyn again, members of his family (which includes his parents, his older brother and his brother’s wife) have asked him to help take care of his grandmother Olga during Olivia’s time off from the job. Olivia shows Olga’s schedule to Alex and the instructions on what to do. Olivia also tells Alex that she will still be the one to give Olga baths, but Alex will be in charge of almost everything else when Olivia isn’t there.

Olivia can see that Alex is nervous about having all of this responsibility because he admits to her up front that the schedule is a lot of him to handle. She calmly assures him that he can follow the schedule and that he’ll eventually get used to it. Meanwhile, although Alex and Olivia don’t flirt with each other when they first meet, it’s clear there might be some mutual attraction between them. For now, Olivia is trying to keep things professional with Alex.

Alex reconnects with some Brooklyn friends and finds himself falling back into his old drinking habits. At a scene in a local bar, Alex declines to drink alcohol at first because he says he’s in a recovery program for addiction. But then, a male friend eggs him on until Alex gives in and orders some vodka. It’s not shown what happens in the bar after that, but not surprisingly, Alex wakes up the next day with a hangover. And because he overslept, he’s late for the schedule he was supposed to keep for his grandmother Olga. Olivia finds out and gets irritated with Alex, but he is so charming to her that she ends up forgiving him.

It seems that Alex is leading an aimless life because there’s no indication that he has any goals or is ready to “grow up.” When he hangs out with his male friends, they play video games. The talk about sex with women, and one of the guys says that he suspects he might have dated a transgender woman because she would only give him oral sex and wouldn’t let him see her private parts. The guy who tells this story uses a derogatory term to describe this alleged transgender woman, so viewers know that Alex has at least one friend who’s bigoted against the LGBTQ community.

Olivia and Alex begin to spend more time together, because he has a car and a driver’s license, so he sometimes gives her rides to where she needs to go. Even though Olivia and Alex have opposite personalities (Olivia is introverted, Alex is extroverted), they start to become more attracted to each other. Alex incorrectly assumes that Matthew is Olivia’s boyfriend, and that’s when she confides in Alex that Matthew has been someone she’s been paying to eventually marry her so that she can get a green card.

She also tells Alex that she’s terrified by the possibility that she will be arrested by ICE. While Olivia and Alex are hanging out together outside one day, they see an undocumented immigrant being detained by ICE agents, who arrested the immigrant right on the street in front of the immigrant’s family members. It’s a sight that causes Olivia to become upset and more paranoid. Alex knows how much Olivia’s undocumented immigration status bothers her, and he tries to comfort Olivia.

Over time, Alex and Olivia’s conversations become more flirtatious until it’s pretty obvious that they’re going to become lovers. If it isn’t made clear enough that Olivia has sexual needs, there’s a scene of Olivia in her bedroom with a copy of D.H. Lawrence’s novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” on the dresser, and she takes out her vibrator to clean it.

Olivia and Alex eventually become lovers, but she hasn’t told him that she’s transgender. The sex scenes don’t really show what happens underneath the bed covers, but it’s implied that it’s possible that Olivia could have hidden her genital area from Alex. Olivia’s female breasts are seen in an upper-body nude scene, so it’s obvious she’s taken hormones, which probably made other parts of her body look more feminine too.

Will Alex find out that Olivia is transgender? Will Olivia marry Matthew or Alex to get a green card? And could she be arrested by ICE before any of that happens? The movie answers those questions, but not in an overdramatic “TV movie of the week” way, but in more of an atmospheric and introspective way that has lingering shots of the Brooklyn skyline and scenery, as Olivia and Alex’s love story develops.

“Lingua Franca” was released in the same week as the dramatic film “The Garden Left Behind,” which is about a transgender woman who’s an undocumented Mexican immigrant living in New York City. Even though the immigration status of these two women are the same, both of the movies and their central transgender characters are very different. In “The Garden Left Behind,” the transgender protagonist (who is named Tina) is a Dreamer in her 20s, and she becomes a political activist. Tina has a Latino American boyfriend who knows she’s transgender, but Tina isn’t at a stage in her life where she’s thinking about getting married, even if it’s to get legal immigration status.

In “Lingua Franca,” the transgender protagonist doesn’t want to do anything to call attention to herself and she definitely does not tell a potential boyfriend up front that she is transgender. And because Olivia is very introverted and passive, she doesn’t really have the type of personality to be a political activist. Olivia is someone who is okay with being as invisible as possible in American society, if it means it decreases her chances of being detained and deported.

Both movies have good acting, solid direction and well-written screenplays that realistically depict conversations, situations and events experienced by the characters. Olivia in “Lingua Franca” is a lot more emotionally isolated than Tina in “The Garden Left Behind.” Olivia doesn’t have any biological family members who live close to her (by contrast, Tina lives with her grandmother), and Olivia doesn’t have a support group of other people in the LGBTQ community.

Even if Olivia told potential husbands that she’s transgender, she’s at an age where a potential husband in an immigration arrangement might be more inclined to want a younger “trophy wife.” There’s some small acknowledgement of the “spinster” issue when, shortly after Olivia’s friend Trixie gets married, Olivia tells Trixie in a dejected tone that she’s “always the bridesmaid,” while Trixie tries to cheer up Olivia and tell her that she will eventually find someone to marry.

“Lingua Franca” has a lot of “slice of life” scenes that aren’t necessarily about moving the plot forward but they’re in the movie to give viewers a more vivid personality portraits of Olivia and Alex. It’s obvious that he’s not very stable, but will Olivia think he’s her best chance of getting legal immigration status? Olivia didn’t tell Alex that she’s transgender before they became lovers, but he knows how desperate she is to get her green card. There are a few scenes in the movie where he uses that desperation to emotionally manipulate Olivia.

“Lingua Franca” is Sandoval’s third feature film and the first feature where she has the name Isabel. For her previous two feature films—2011’s “Señorita and 2012’s “Apparition”—she wrote and directed under the name Vincent Sandoval. “Lingua Franca” might be a fictional film, but it accurately shows situations and feelings experienced by an untold number of transgender undocumented immigrants. And because Sandoval is also a transgender, there is a level of authenticity to this entire movie that would be difficult to achieve if the story had been told by all-cisgender group of filmmakers.

“Lingua Franca” poignantly shows how undocumented immigrants have to act “invisible,” for fear of being deported. That diminishment in society is further complicated when the immigrant is transgender. Thanks to Sandoval’s unique creative vision, “Lingua Franca” is an admirable spotlight that is not about pity but about respect and dignity.

Array released “Lingua Franca” in select U.S. cinemas on August 26, 2020, the same date that the movie premiered on Netflix.