In telling the story of undocumented transgender Filipina caregiver Olivia, writer/director/actress Isabel Sandoval’s quietly powerful drama Lingua Franca calls attention to an issue that too many people find easy to dismiss as not their concern. And it does so with empathy and humanity, hopefully opening hearts and minds before the credits roll.
Olivia (Sandoval) kindly and patiently cares for elderly Olga (the late Lynn Cohen) in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, counting the days until she’s able to secure her green card. She has paid an American citizen to marry her; for her and other Filipino transwomen in her situation, who face persecution and violence in their home country, it’s a common practice, a means to an end. But it only works if everything goes exactly according to plan, and Olivia has had her hopes dashed more than once — and she lives in constant fear of ICE arriving on her doorstep and sending her back to the Philippines.
She finds a sympathetic ear in the form of Alex (Eamon Farren), Olga’s formerly incarcerated grandson, who’s looking to make a fresh start but finds it difficult to resist the temptations, relationships, and patterns of his old life. As Alex and Olivia get to know each other, it seems as though each may be the way forward that the other needs.
Intimate, personal stories like Olivia’s are the kind that have a way of making the biggest impact: Putting a sympathetic, individual face on a complex situation can give it the kind of immediacy that news stories about policy and politics can’t. Here’s hoping that Sandoval’s earnest, thoughtful story reaches the people who need to see it most. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Nikki Baughan: Bittersweet and gut-wrenchingly honest, writer/director Isabel Sandoval’s Lingua Franca is an unflinching exploration of the impossible situation faced by so many of the world’s displaced population. The desperate search for a home, for family and connection, is distilled through the story of Olivia, an undocumented Filipina transwoman who cares for Olga (Lynn Cohen), an elderly Russian woman in New York’s Brighton Beach, and who spends every day living in fear that she will be deported as a criminal. Her flirtation with Olga’s adult grandson Alex (an excellent Eamon Farron) promises a glimpse of genuine happiness, before cold reality rears its ugly head once more. With Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric echoing up in the background, and violent deportations filling the nightly news, this is a timely tale indeed. That trans filmmaker Sandoval also stars as Olivia — these are her real experiences, her real feelings — gives the film a bracing authenticity which makes the horrifying inhumanity of Olivia’s situation even more difficult to bear.
Leslie Combemale Isabel Sandoval has created a subtle, sensual story that goes beyond the trans narratives released by largely white, male, cis-gendered mainstream directors of today. Her film Lingua Franca is a relationship-based tale that follows trans Filipina Olivia in her struggle to find some joy and live her life authentically as a caregiver in Brighton Beach, while trying to secure a green card. Working as a caregiver for Olga, an elderly Russian woman, she meets and falls for her alcoholic grandson, and the two are challenged to deal with their insecurities and personal shame, as they attempt to build something authentic together. Read or watch Isabel Sandval interview.
MaryAnn Johanson Isabel Sandoval’s deeply poignant and clearly very personal story is a marvel, bringing a lyrical intimacy and a sensuality to the grit of a social-justice drama. The quiet grace and fortitude of her Olivia powerfully humanizes desperate situations that too often are seen as little more than statistics, or unfunny punchlines in political rhetoric. This is a beautiful film, and a stunning rebuke to hate and exclusion.
Loren King Isabel Sandoval’s timely Lingua Franca is the rare film that centers on a working class, usually invisible woman. With a delicate dramatic touch, Sandoval shows how the life of Olivia, an undocumented Filipina trans woman, is shaped by the tense political climate and her lack of options. Read full review.
Pam Grady: The desperation and fears of undocumented immigrants trying to stay in the United States are distilled through a single character in trans writer-director Isabel Sandoval’s disquieting low-key drama. Sandoval herself plays Olivia, Filipina caregiver to elderly Russian matriarch Olga (Lynn Cohen) in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. A green-card marriage would solidify Olivia’s status. She is not looking for love, but then she and Olga’s grandson Alex (Eamon Farren) hit it off. There is a romantic drama here, one complicated by transphobia and Alex’s considerable demons, but the emphasis is on Olivia’s precarious situation as an outsider – as a transwoman and as an immigrant within an immigrant community, but one without proper papers. Shot largely on location in Brighton Beach and nearby Coney Island, Sandoval and cinematographer Isaac Banks evoke the heat of a New York summer’s day along with the heat of a couple’s passion in a film that makes personal the perils facing so many of America’s newcomers.
Susan Wloszczyna: Let’s salute writer, director and lead actress Isabel Sandoval for Lingua Franca. The film is her somber, sobering and highly personal story infused by her own real life experiences as she plays an a post-opt Filipino trans woman, an undocumented immigrant living and working in Brooklyn. Read full review.
Kathia Woods Isabel Sandoval’s third feature Lingua Franca is a labor of love even if at times the script seems a bit flawed. The film about a trans Filipina woman looking for love via a green card seems very timely for the events occurring in our country. She’s working as domestic while trying to secure her position in her adopted homeland. We needed more clarity about her leading lady’s journey into womanhood. The part that is most important is how Olivia’s constant worries about deportation and having to support family abroad wears on her. This film demonstrates that the immigration process isn’t always as clear cut as our government makes it seem. The takeaway is that immigrating to this country shouldn’t involve fear or lack of due process. Lingua Franca is an important story while fictional is covers many of the issues immigrants face. In the end you are rooting for her.
Jennifer Merin Isabel Sandoval’s Lingua Franca is an engaging narrative about Olivia, an undocumented Filipina transwoman who works as a caregiver for an elderly Russian woman in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, and is desperately seeking a way to get her green card, The best option seems to be marriage, but finding a willing mate is extremely problematic. Olive is in constant fear that she will be picked up by ICE and deported to her homeland where transgender people are persecuted mercilessly. Olivia is a very compelling and complex character who’s dealing with timeless yet very timely issues. Isabel Sandoval wrote, directed and stars in the deeply affecting film.
Liz Whittemore Stunningly performed, Lingua Franca has a cyclical sadness about it. Tackling huge and prevalent issues like trans rights, immigration, toxic politics, elder care, and addiction, this script manages to be honest without a hint of exploitation. Be aware that there are two false endings, so do not stop watching after the film fades to black. Accompanied by carefully curated cinematography, Lingua Franca is a timely story landing somewhere between heart-rending and hopeful.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Lingua Franca is a sensitively made intersectional “own voices” film about a trans Filipina woman struggling with her undocumented status in New York City during the anti-immigrant Trump presidency. Written, directed and starring trans filmmaker Isabel Sandoval, the movie is set in the traditionally Russian-Jewish neighborhood of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where Olivia (Sandoval) is the live-in caregiver of elderly Olga (the excellent Lynn Cohen). While Olivia’s best friend manages to marry for love and in the process score a green card, Olivia’s own immigration status is in jeopardy. When she begins a relationship with Olga’s 29-year-old grandson Alex (Eamon Farren), who’s straight out of rehab, things seem to get better. Sandoval captures the precariousness of Olivia’s situation and the film benefits from nuanced performances by Sandoval and Cohen.
Cate Marquis A Filipina immigrant trans woman named Olivia works as a caretaker for an older woman with dementia in Brooklyn, while struggling towards getting her green card but she also secretly dreams of finding love, in Lingua Franca. Equal parts romance and immigration tale, director/writer/star Isabel Sandoval, a trans woman herself, takes a low-key but effective approach in this emotionally-affecting drama, as she makes her points about immigration, tolerance and love.
Title: Lingua Franca
Director: Isabel Sandoval
Release Date: August 26, 2020
Running Time: 89 minutes
Language: English, Tagalog with English subtitles
Screenwriter: Isabel Sandoval
Distribution Company: ARRAY
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna, Kathia Woods
Edited by Jennifer Merin