Caregiver Olivia (Isabel Sandoval) sits at the table in her ward Olga’s (Lynn Cohen) kitchen. On the outside, she’s still. On the inside, she’s shuddering. The soundtrack to her day is the wannabe tough man rhetoric of Donald J. Trump, spoken in his nasally, grating voice back at a 2016 rally in Arizona. “It is our right as a sovereign nation,” he whines, a plea to his audience that indulges their white fragility, “to choose immigrants that we think are the likeliest to thrive and flourish here.” Trump’s pitchy racism follows Olivia when she leaves the apartment, walks New York City’s streets, attempts to escape the hatred. She finds a coffee shop and sits down. The buzzing stops.
But it doesn’t really stop. The naked bigotry espoused by the white supremacist in chief hounds her no matter where she goes, and the best she can do is block out the noise for a brief pause as she goes about her days. Her experiences as a Filipino immigrant and a transgender woman are Lingua Franca’s, which Sandoval wrote, directed, produced and possibly provided craft services for because having gone above and beyond to realize her picture, why not go above above and beyond? The movie is a statement piece, a political piece, a personal piece and a meticulously crafted mood piece about Olivia’s struggle to belong in a nation that actively doesn’t want her and doesn’t acknowledge her humanity. The kicker is that as she quietly strolls around the city, going from place to place without a real destination in mind, she blends right into the backdrop. In fact if you don’t watch carefully enough, she disappears.
Disappearance is her overarching fear. Lingua Franca begins with Olivia’s job looking after Olga in the elderly woman’s Brighton Beach home, but melts into a story about American immigration over the first half hour. Even before Sandoval assaults the ears with Trump’s bloviations, a lingering anxiety hangs over the film’s otherwise serene and understated atmosphere: To be an immigrant here means looking for any anchors to keep oneself moored, and Olivia’s efforts at securing permanent residence are thwarted at every turn. Then she meets Alex (Eamon Farren), Olga’s grandson, a troublesome but not exactly troubling recurring alcoholic, and the electrons and ions between them start to spark. It’s a kinetic meet-cute. When they connect and develop a romance, Lingua Franca uses that romance to further express the danger Olivia contends with as part of her life.
It’s here the movie makes occasional stumbles. ICE is a figure in the plot long before ICE actually makes an appearance. Like the slavering MAGA crowd, they hang around at Lingua Franca’s margins like malevolent specters. When they do figure directly into Sandoval’s narrative, it’s by total coincidence: Olivia and Alex happen upon agents ripping a family apart, driving home a point that needn’t really be driven home at all. Dread is a constant for Olivia; she wakes up, she eats breakfast, she stares her dread in the face. Actualizing that dread through artifice isn’t a mistake, per se, but the choice is less effective in practice than simply allowing the characters to inhabit the spaces that Sandoval photographs and blocks with such care.
Ultimately beats like these are minor hiccups in an otherwise sterling movie. Sandoval is the best kind of filmmaker, one with the confidence to know where to put her camera, guided by Isaac Banks, and the wisdom to just leave it there. The static shots let Olivia and Alex breathe, and in her case emphasize her personhood just by affording her the chance to exist on screen. Lingua Franca has a lived-in sensibility facilitated by Sandoval’s empathy and understanding of what Olivia’s going through. It’s the film’s best quality: a firsthand knowledge driving an earnest request to be seen and respected, as an American and as a woman. Olivia isn’t asking for much. There’s no reason to deny her.
Director: Isabel Sandoval
Writer: Isabel Sandoval
Starring: Isabel Sandoval, Eamon Farren, Lynn Cohen, Lev Gorn
Release Date: August 26, 2020 (Netflix)
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.