Lingua Franca is a film about a Filipina immigrant, Olivia, who is a caretaker for a woman, Olga, with a disease that is affecting her memory. Olivia is undocumented as well as a transgender woman and she lives in constant fear that ICE will come to her door as she's seen happen for so many she knows. Alex is Olga's grandson and a recovering addict who comes to live with her. Alex and Olivia's mutual attraction upends Olivia's life in ways she hoped to avoid. The film stars Isabel Sandoval, Eamon Farren, Lev Gorn, Ivory Aquino, P.J. Boudousqué, and Lynn Cohen. The film is written, directed, produced, and edited by Isabel Sandoval. The film is streaming on Netflix (Note: I don't know if everyone has this problem, but the subtitles for the sequences that weren't in English weren't auto-populated for me. I thought this was intentional at first, but if this happens for you, just turn on the closed captions and you will see the dialogue translated.)
It's rare to see a transgender story not solely about being trans. It's rarer still to see a transgender story from the perspective of a transgender person and starring transgender actors. When we talk about representation, it's nice to see someone represented, but to see someone represented by someone who knows exactly what it is to be that person is the ideal.
Isabel Sandoval is a thoughtful filmmaker. She achieves a kind of balance and a perspective that is something I haven't seen before. I'm in awe of the way she and cinematographer Isaac Banks place and shoot the scenes. There is so much detail that never overwhelms, but blends together in a rich tapestry of movement. I am especially in awe of one establishing shot of an elevated train coming into the station and was astonished that we could see Olivia in the center framed window as the train comes to a stop. It was like a magic trick that they had to time and space out perfectly.
I also loved the use of mirrors to force perspective and to create a way for us to see how the characters see themselves. This works especially well in the climactic scene where Olivia, from our perspective, is looking away from Alex and Alex is looking at the back of Olivia. This scene where she's figured out the truth and she's emotionally turned away from him shows us a physical representation of that emotion without straining the credulity of their staging.
There are a couple of shots like this throughout the film without mirrors as well. One of the opening scenes has Olga becoming confused in her kitchen and she calls Olivia on the phone who calms her down as she does laundry. Then a few seconds later, as Olivia enters the kitchen, we realize she was only downstairs, changing how we see this relationship and what Olivia's done uniquely as a caregiver.
Lingua Franca is a film filled with mystery where we fill in the gaps left unsaid by the characters. Olga's disease, Alex's addictions, and Olivia's unease with her status are all there without us having to be told it. There is even mystery between Alex and Olivia with Olivia's identity as a transgender woman. More often than not the sex scene that occurs in a film by a cis-gendered writer and director, would end with awkwardness or anger, but here it's beautifully shot. It's sensual and feels taboo only in the way that Olivia's patient and Alex's grandmother is down the hall. There isn't once when Alex cries out in disgust or suspects any difference in Olivia from any other woman he's slept with. It's pure lust from two people who need each other in the moment.
I loved Isabel Sandoval's performance as Olivia. It's obvious she brought so much of her own life and own experience to bear in Lingua Franca, which is what makes it an excellent film. People telling their own stories is so much better than a translated version that fails to capture nuance. Lingua Franca is a beautifully made film and one you should watch for its nuance, care and attention to all of the issues it presents.