“We lived behind a broken door. We lived in a city hidden from the city.”
– Martin Espada, “Isabel’s Corrido”
“She is constantly moving away from you the only way she can.
She never turns her face from you because of what you might do.
She will outlive everything you know.”
– Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, “The Moon is Trans”
There are films that – when you come out of them – make everything feel more real. Looking out a window to the lights at night, hearing the sound of passing cars, feeling a wooden floor under your bare feet. There’s a texture to it all that you skipped before. It’s not because the film made these things more real. It’s because the film so thoroughly took you into someone else’s experience that you left your own for a time. “Lingua Franca” is a transporting film, real and calm and sudden and stark and beautiful and terrifying.
So what is “Lingua Franca”? The movie’s a realistic drama about a home care assistant and the son of the woman she cares for falling in love. It’s one of the great romantic films I’ve ever seen. It’s also a subtle horror movie that builds its intensity slowly.
Olivia is a Filipina immigrant. She’s a home care worker for Olga, who suffers from dementia. Olga’s son Alex has just returned home. He strikes up a romance with Olivia, who is trying to get married in order to stay in the U.S. He doesn’t know that Olivia is trans, and Olivia lives in increasing fear that she’ll be deported by ICE. If it seems like you know what plot points to expect from that set-up, this isn’t a movie that’s obsessed with turning the screws on plot complications. It’s more patient and experiential with its story, and feels all the more real for it.
Isabel Sandoval wrote, directed, and stars in “Lingua Franca”. The writing feels natural for the most part. There are one or two brief early flashes of exposition through dialogue that might be better shown another away, but they pass quickly and establish what we need to know. There’s a calm, almost procedural storytelling foundation that lends a solidity to the film. In turn, this enables an often dreamlike presentation, poignant themes that build and lurk within that solid structure, and realistically emotional performances that fill out every corner of every scene in “Lingua Franca”.
Sandoval’s directing is lyrical. She fuses together elements from so many genres, but always in a gentle, patient, subtle manner. She selectively uses takes where an actor might start a line twice, or where two step on each others’ lines without breaking character. This reflects real ways that people speak: interruptive, halting, awkward. She establishes a tone that’s surreal around the edges. She increasingly uses visual and editing cues that we’re used to seeing in horror. They’re deeply effective, and make us inhabit the paranoia of an immigrant who lives in constant fear of ICE.
All the acting here feels like you could reach out and touch these people, like they live down the block, or the next city over. They all feel so real, so flawed and hopeful and human. Sandoval delivers what I might end up calling the best performance of the year. It’s one thing for an actress to make you feel what she’s feeling, to make you long or cry or feel despondent. It’s another for her to remind you of the times you felt that way, to make you identify so fiercely with the moment she’s feeling that you reach into the past and feel that moment in yourself again. That’s the difference between watching a great film and feeling it – when what’s been beautiful or painful in your life can sit beside the beauty or pain in someone else’s.
What film might do best, what acting might achieve better than anything else, is to allow your vulnerabilities to find a space there on screen where they aren’t alone, where you can feel something awful in a less lonely way because someone else is showing you they know what it is, too. I don’t mean to compare the nature of the experiences – Olivia’s journey is different from mine and lacks access to many privileges I enjoy. What I mean to say is that seeing a character cry like I have in my very worst moments, stare into space like I have in my most devastated moments – it’s rare to see that reflected in a way that doesn’t feel at all like acting. It just feels like being. “Lingua Franca” can take you well past empathy, and into understanding.
That’s where “Lingua Franca” is strongest. When the credits roll, these people all exist. These people all feel real. Their experiences are something you didn’t just witness, but that you felt. There aren’t many films from the perspective of an immigrant that get made. There aren’t many films from the perspective of trans people that get made. There’s an unfair burden placed on marginalized people that the few films that are about them have to be knocked out of the park, or else more won’t get made. Films about immigrants or trans people, or by a trans immigrant, shouldn’t carry any more burden to make characters feel real than any other movie. Yet they must because these are the people most thoroughly dehumanized every day in our society, through every piece of media we have.
We place an impossible standard on stories told to us by the most marginalized, and “Lingua Franca” doesn’t just meet and surpass that standard, it withers it, it shows it as pointless not because the story directly engages that standard, but rather because its characters are just as real as each other, are just as emotionally relevant, are just as human and just as scared and just as heartbroken and dissatisfied and resilient and balanced between shattered and whole as the viewer.
When countless movies about people just like me feel fake and inhuman, and one about a trans immigrant feels like the most identifiable, lovingly, terrifyingly human experience I’ve seen this year, that’s important and needs to be seen and talked about and appreciated.
The first things I saw when I clicked off my rough draft of this review and looked at the news – the first was about transphobe J.K. Rowling’s new book and its horrible vilification of trans people. The second was about ICE forcing hysterectomies on immigrant women they hold prisoner – forced sterilization is a qualifier of genocide.
I have no concluding thought for that. I have no way to wrap that up. “Lingua Franca” is about beautiful, meaningful, complex people who are struggling to attain something reliable in their lives amid hate and oppression. Fight for them in some way that’s meaningful. If we don’t, what the hell good are we?
Does “Lingua Franca” Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.
1. Does “Lingua Franca” have more than one woman in it?
Yes. Isabel Sandoval plays Olivia, the central character. Lynn Cohen plays Olga, an elderly woman with dementia. Ivory Aquino plays Trixie, a good friend of Olivia’s. Megan Channell plays Milla, and Shiloh Verrico plays Maggie, both family members of love interest Murray. There are other women with very brief speaking parts.
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?
Yes. Olivia is a home care worker for Olga. Some of their dialogue is about Olga’s late husband, but much of it is about day-to-day activities and what Olga wants.
Olivia speaks with Trixie about her immigration status, her fears about ICE, and their shared past about growing up knowing they were women. Given that her immigration status is connected to marriage, these things sometimes interweave with conversations about men, but this is only a part of their conversation.
Milla and Maggie briefly talk about Maggie’s school performance.
This is a film that very much centers around the experiences of women. Olivia’s romantic interest Murray and his struggles do get a substantial amount of screen time (I’d think of him as more of a 1b lead to Olivia’s 1a, rather than as a supporting role), but the story and perspective being shared for the majority of the film are Olivia’s.
“Lingua Franca” can be watched on Netflix.
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