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Review: `Lingua Franca’ subverts norms with deeply human filmmaking

Douglas Laman
Special to Texoma Marketing and Media Group
Writer-director Isabel Sandoval also stars in "Lingua Franca" as an undocumented trans Filipina woman living in New York and seeking a green card.

Isabel Sandoval writes, directs and stars in “Lingua Franca” (now streaming on Netflix). She also plays the role of Olivia, a trans, undocumented Filipina woman working in New York City in 2020. As you can imagine, everyday life for her isn’t great thanks to the constant looming presence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and her struggles to garner U.S. citizenship. She makes her money working as a nurse for an elderly woman named Olga (Lynn Cohen) who is suffering from a deteriorating mental state and who just got some company in the form of her grandson, Murray (Lev Gorn). Across all three of these characters is a desire to be seen as a person by other people. Olga, for example, doesn’t want to receive help when she doesn’t need it while Murray is trying to maintain a job after a number of off-screen personal troubles.

Above all, though, this is Olivia’s story. It’s one that Sandoval tells with a welcome variety of filmmaking influences. The opening and closing sequence, depicting Olivia talking to her far-away mother over footage of various parts of NYC, is reminiscent of Chantal Akerman's “Notes From Home.” Murray, meanwhile, enters the meat factory where he works through a tracking shot straight out of a Martin Scorsese movie. Then there’s Olivia’s sensual dream sequence where she imagines herself and Murray making love. The otherworldly nature of the visuals, as well as the use of tight close-ups of bodies, simultaneously evokes the works of David Lynch as well as Hiroshi Teshigahara's “The Woman in the Dunes.”

The way “Lingua Franca” evokes classic movies while creating something distinctive is emblematic of how the whole production is aware of the past while blazing new trails. This trait is also reflected in how “Lingua Franca” quietly subverts storytelling tropes associated with cinematic trans narratives. One way this subversive spirit manifests is by spending the vast majority of the film in Olivia’s perspective. Only scenes depicting Murray at his job and at a local tavern deviate from “Lingua Franca” being told through Olivia’s eyes. For another, even in the face of systemic forces (like ICE) that constrain her, Olivia is still an active character. She’s more than capable of making her own choices, she isn’t just at the mercy of cisgendered characters. Since the narrative doesn’t default to Olivia always experiencing the most miserable events possible, you really don’t know where she’ll take the story next.

This means “Lingua Franca” has a sense of tonal variety in depicting the life of a trans character that I can’t even imagine existing in something like “Dallas Buyer’s Club.” That’s unbelievably good in terms of subverting harmful pop-culture stereotypes. However, these deft writing touches on the part of Sandoval ensures that “Lingua Franca ” is immensely engaging as a standalone piece of art. Take a quiet scene between Olivia and her sister reminiscing about their childhood together. The dialogue here (including the great phrase “We were dressed like altar boys when what we really wanted to be were nuns”) is so gloriously specific. There’s a level of detail to their interaction that makes it feel ripped from reality.

Sandoval’s intimate camerawork is the cherry on top of such a moving scene. By placing the audience so close to these two characters, as well as having this conversation take place in a nearly empty locale, there’s a cozy visual quality to their interaction. That quality reinforces the sense that Olivia and her sister, though so often dehumanized in America, find essential comfort in one another’s company. Sandoval’s camerawork throughout the production carries a similar quality of being subdued-but-noteworthy. Especially impressive is the way she incorporates wider angles throughout “Lingua Franca” to convey a sense of detachment between characters, particularly in regard to Murray and his relatives.

It wouldn’t be inaccurate to call “Lingua Franca” a movie of the moment. However, its best qualities are also its most timeless. Among those is the fact that, like the films “Carol,” “Tangerine” and “Rafiki,” it is a movie about LGBTQIA+ people living, enduring and even thriving as told through the prism of remarkable filmmaking. That’s the sort of feature that ensures we’ll be talking about “Lingua Franca” long after summer 2020 has come to a close.

A lifelong movie fan and writer, Douglas Laman graduated from UT Dallas and is currently a graduate student at the University of North Texas. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group.