“LINGUA FRANCA”— An Undocumented Filipino Trans Caregiver


An Undocumented Filipino Trans Caregiver

Amos Lassen

Isobel Sandoval’s “Lingua Franca” is a semi-autobiographical film that she directed, wrote, produced, edited and starred in the film all by herself.

The focus is on Olivia, a trans caregiver trying to find her way to a green card, exploring relevant themes but in a fairly unengaging way. Olivia’s relationship with Alex (Eamon Farren) dominates the picture at the expense of its message. Sandoval’s performance is clearly inexperienced but Farren certainly does the best he can with the material. The problem is simply that it just is not that interesting. It’s not new. We’ve seen it done better in many other films and this is not what the film should be focusing on. 

Sandoval has forgotten character. Olivia has little depth. Aside from the fact that she is trans, a caregiver and an illegal immigrant, it’s really quite difficult to understand who Olivia is. She never really feels like a person— just a prop. It’s very hard to care about Olivia’s plight without decent character development, and she has none. 

There are some interesting themes in “Lingua Franca” and they are occasionally well-explored, but the film’s lack of any real character development and unintentional focus on its central love story mean it the film does not know where it is going. Sandoval’s work is greatly flawed, and one can’t help but feel this picture may have been a tad more successful in more experienced hands. It is one of those tales of the moment that seem like they can never end well.

Olivia looks after Olga an elderly Russian Jewish women (Lynn Cohen) in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.  The irony of the situation is that Olga and her late husband came to the United States  themselves some decades ago in very similar circumstances  as Olivia’s

Besides her work, Olivia leads a solitary life and is stuck scrimping and saving to send money home to her mother in the Philippines.  She is also trying to pay off Matthew, a  friend of a friend who has agreed to marry her so she can finally get a Green Card.

When Matthew tells here he is no longer free and returns her money, Olivia is faced with the reality of the possibilities of being deported.  The ICE authorities have been forced by the Administration to step up their raids to discover illegal immigrants, and she feels like they are closing in.

Alex, Olga’s drifter grandson is just out of rehab and has been given shelter in her house on the condition he helps look after her.  However he’s a recovering alcoholic prone to relapses who has trouble hanging on to his job in his uncle’s slaughterhouse, much less caring for Olga.

Like Olivia, Alex is also very much a loner , and now living under the same roof, they can hardly avoid eventually drifting together.  However, Alex does not know that Olivia is a trans woman.

While this is not  the story of Sandoval’s own life, she is in a position to relate to it personally and so adds a real sense of authenticity to it.   It’s a very downbeat drama that seems to deliberately avoid giving any sign of optimism and hope, yet somehow Sandoval draws us in and keeps us interested and invested until the very end.

To find out what happens when Alex learns Olivia is trans, you will have to see the film.  I can say that the two of them are on different paths in their life.

Sandoval uses her own experiences to tell this story.  She is a transgender woman of color and an immigrant and these influence iher worldview in a way that others probably won’t be able to see. 

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