Transgender undocumented immigrants face unfathomable levels of discrimination. It is hard to imagine the feelings of terror and isolation that such a vulnerable population endures each and every day. Isabel Sandoval’s Lingua Franca aims to provide a lens through which one can understand the unique plight that trans people experience within America’s broken immigration system.
Olivia (Sandoval) is a live-in caretaker for an elderly woman, Olga (Lynn Cohen) suffering from dementia. Olivia has a stable job and a supportive group of friends, who help her as she tries to find someone willing to marry her in order to obtain a green card. The arrival of Olga’s grandson Alex (Eamon Farren) presents a romantic opportunity for Olivia, though complicated by Alex’s alcohol abuse.
Juggling screenwriting, directing, and acting duties, Sandoval impresses with her versatility. She’s a skilled director, delivering plenty of ambitious shots that heighten the experience in an otherwise fairly mundane indie film. She has a gift for drawing power from quiet moments.
Sandoval is less effective with her screenplay, which is pretty lackluster. The dialogue is wooden, with clunky exposition dumps. The acting isn’t much better, often quite inconsistent from scene to scene. The natural feel of her direction is not at all replicated through the performances.
Further frustrating is the heavy-handed nature of her approach. Sandoval depicts ICE officers arresting a person, capturing Olivia’s anxieties in real time. For whatever reason, Sandoval decides to include audio footage of Donald Trump and Joe Rogan that come across as extremely clunky in the shadow of her more powerful demonstrations. Lingua Franca repeatedly struggles to balance the show vs. tell dynamic.
Transphobia is a terrible thing that practically every trans person, certainly myself included, have experienced. Often, transphobia exists for no broader purpose than the bigotry itself. “The cruelty is the point,” is a line often used to explain the Trump administration’s policies.
Except in Lingua Franca, the transphobia serves a very specific purpose, integral to advancing the narrative. In one sequence, an addict friend of Alex’s rummages through Olivia’s drawers for valuables, in the process finding her passport with its unchanged gender marker. This action proves to be a vital catalyst for the plot, wielding transphobia as a weird plot device that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The narrative could have functioned exactly the same without it.
Lingua Franca isn’t a plot heavy film, but Sandoval uses practically every scene to drive the narrative instead of investing in her characters. Despite these efforts, she doesn’t really reveal a whole lot about either Olivia or Alex. We spend a fair bit of time with Alex, without gaining an understanding of whether he’s actually a good guy, robbing Olivia’s story of its full impact.The film loses all of its steam in the home stretch as a result of the haphazard investment in the leads.
Sandoval shines as a director, but Lingua Franca suffers from wooden performances and a screenplay that rarely knows where to concentrate its attention. There are pieces of a good story here, certainly a timely subject, but it never quite comes together. We can feel sympathy for Olivia, but as a fictional narrative it lacks the depth that a story like this one deserves.