The austere climes of Brighton Beach always add a cold sense of isolation to film, in contrast to the more iconic bright hues of neighboring Coney Island. In “Lingua Franca,” sparsely traveled boardwalks and above-ground subway trains offers an elegantly lonesome backdrop to this plaintive portrait of an undocumented trans woman. The accomplished third feature from writer/director/editor/star Isabel Sandoval, “Lingua Franca” keeps a tight focus on its central figure, the fiercely independent and self-protective Olivia, played by Sandoval in an appropriately understated performance. The film is undoubtedly hers — though the supporting players are vital, Sandoval keeps the point of view securely in Olivia’s control.
“Lingua Franca” illustrates the woefully untapped potential of marginalized storytellers. Though the film is not autobiographical, Sandoval is herself a trans Filpina immigrant. She can take creative risks that would feel unnerving coming from a creator even one circle outside of Olivia’s intersecting identities, and she does. And while Olivia’s choices ensure the film’s conclusion isn’t a joyous one, she remains fully autonomous.
The film opens and closes with long distance phone calls with Olivia’s mother in Tagalog, and a familiar blend of annoyance and care as Olivia promises to send her mother’s allowance when she can. She works as an in-home caregiver to Olga (the late Lynn Cohen, who could break hearts simply cradling a phone receiver), and her well of patience for the deteriorating older woman is a concise way to show her tender soul. Which is why the arrival of Olga’s ne’er-do-well grandson Alex (Eamon Farren) raises red flags, as he barrels into Olga and Olivia’s delicate routine with all the care of a wild bull — not unlike the ones he raises onto meathooks at his uncle’s slaughterhouse.
As Sandoval’s keyed-up counterpart, the lithe Farren vitalizes the action with a coarse yearning that can best be described as deeply masculine. There is a feral quality to this Pablo Schreiber lookalike, even as he circles the mysterious Olivia like a lost boy looking for his Wendy. Alex is a puppy dog compared to his brutish friends, however, whose drunken antics begin with misogynistic comments about strippers and trans women and only get more sinister from there.
Olivia is right to be cautious, though this doesn’t stop her from enjoying Alex’s cruder charms. She imagines him behind her during an intimate masturbation scene, the sound of his voice reading his grandfather’s love letters narrating her fantasies. It doesn’t take long for them to fall into bed together, and their love scene is both raw and tender. The handheld camera stays on her face, which barely registers a glimmer of anxiety about her trans body, as Alex slips out of frame to go down on her, occasionally reaching a hungry hand to engulf her mouth and breasts. Olivia is fully embodied, empowered, and aroused: A trans woman experiencing uncomplicated pleasure onscreen — what a revelation.
Sandoval’s inspired editing draws the film’s relevant themes together with unexpected precision. She is shrewdly sparing with certain techniques, such as a voiceover of Donald Trump bloviating about immigration scoring visuals of Olivia’s commute. Later, a couples’ spat plays over a long shot of Olivia and Alex strolling the boardwalk, drawing out the growing distance between them. Following their first night together, erotic flashes invade Olivia’s memory as a train whooshes loudly by, which cuts abruptly onto Alex embroiled in a homoerotic wrestling skirmish. Sandoval strings these seemingly disparate moments together with a poet’s skill, stringing the images into a discordant harmony.
The specter of deportation hangs over Olivia’s head throughout the film, tightening its grasp on her turbulent inner world. Witnessing an ICE raid naturally rattles Olivia, causing her to become more reliant on Alex for emotional support. While Alex’s reaction to finding out she is trans is not the typical (for most trans films) rejection, he acts out in oblique — but far more insidious — ways. When the man she was paying to marry her backs out, her friend (Ivory Aquino) suggests she marry Alex. “He’s a good person,” she insists, explaining her reasoning, though the audience isn’t so sure.
While the film’s finale may feel abrupt, “Lingua Franca” remains solely in Olivia’s hands. She never needed Alex, or anyone else. She remains her mother’s dutiful daughter, plugging away at the impossible dream of a life in America. Much like “Lingua Franca” belongs almost entirely to Sandoval, Olivia belongs wholly to herself.
An ARRAY Releasing release, “Lingua Franca” arrives on Netflix on today, August 26.