Olivia (writer-director Isabel Sandoval) takes care of an elderly Russian patient in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood. A transgender woman from the Philippines, she’s managed to carve out a small space for herself within the borough’s Filipino diaspora. Like a lot of immigrants living in the United States, Olivia lives in fear that the shadow of ICE could darken her door at any minute; a man she’d been preparing to pay in exchange for a green-card marriage has unexpectedly backed out of the deal at the last minute. Her passport is still listed under her dead name, and because of the political situation, her friend Trixie (Ivory Aquino) can no longer pull strings to get it switched. But life proceeds along, modestly and consistently, for Olivia. She tends to the needs of Olga (Lynn Cohen), who has a fondness for her, and she sends money home to her mother. The days bleed into each other.
It’s shortly after we meet the heroine of Lingua Franca, the wonderfully understated third feature from the triple-threat Sandoval, that the second half of the movie’s equation comes blowing into the picture like a storm. He’s Olga’s grandson, Alex (Eamon Farren, i.e. the drug-pushing no-goodnik from Twin Peaks: The Return). The young man has just come back to Brooklyn from a farm in Ohio, and though he seems contrite and polite, you can pick up on past turbulence: issues with the law, the legacy of a wild youth, a rehab stay. Luckily, his uncle has a job for the family’s black sheep at a meat-packing plant, plus he can stay with Grandma if he looks after her. A tentative, extremely slow-burning attraction starts to form between Olivia and Alex, and it’s not so much a matter of “if” as “when” they’re going to act on it. The question is simply what will happen once Olivia’s previous life becomes an issue — her new beau does not seem to have a clue — and, as an undocumented immigrant, whether she’ll be able to remain in the country for long.
And this is where Lingua Franca truly distinguishes itself from so many of its thematic predecessors and so many rote, round-the-way romances. You brace for a hand-to-forehead melodrama that never comes, and are instead rewarded with something far quieter and much more attuned to translating an authentic, lived-in experience to the screen. Sandoval has dealt with some of these issues before — her debut movie, 2011’s Señorita, revolved around a transgender sex worker — but it’s the filmmaker’s first movie outside of the Philippines, the first as an ex-pat living in Brooklyn and the first made after she’s transitioned. Even if the characters are in flux, the hand that’s guiding the storytelling here feels remarkably steady, assured, calm. The sensibility here isn’t set to the key of Douglas Sirk so much as the American neo-neorealistic indies of the early 2000’s, in which a documentary-like sense of place and a deliberate view of how time passes grounds everything, even when things drift into a semi-dreamlike state. “Beautifully observed” is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot in film reviews, but this love story earns the description. (It also sits nicely next to the filmmaker’s more stylistic touches — there are a noticeable amount of shots involving mirrors, all the better to underline the recurring notion of self-identity.) The road-less-traveled route suits Sandoval’s vision. It doesn’t dampen the emotional connections or turmoil so much as deepen them between these two drifting souls.
Like its heroine’s life, Lingua Franca is modest, sometimes to a fault. Set up as a dual character study, the movie sometimes seems to tilt in favor of following Alex as he negotiates his new life, some old bad influences, job-related ups and downs, relapses regarding his sobriety and setbacks in maturity. Sandoval has created an incredible character in Olivia, who holds her cards close to her chest but has her own hopes, dreams, desires and nightmares. You end up wishing you got to know her a little better, or at least spend more time with her as things gently glide to an ambiguous, circular ending. If anything, it feels like the one-woman writer, director and star sometimes gives her heroine short shrift — this is the opposite of a vanity project.
Yet what you do get with Olivia is the glow of a human being wrestling with whether to accept the risks of a connection with someone else, and that’s enough. There’s also the discovery of someone finding a pitch that genuinely suits their voice. You can see why Ava DuVernay’s distribution collective Array threw its weight behind the project, and not simply because the film aligns with the organization’s mission to amplify voices that have traditionally not had the benefit of mainstream megaphones. (Something that Netflix, who begins streaming the movie on their service today, will also help with.) Lingua Franca is indeed a perfect example of representation, and Sandoval’s low-key portrayal of transgender life — she’s as adept a performer as she is a writer and director — is both singular and extraordinary in its ordinariness. But it’s also an exceptional, moving, sui generis movie, and that’s part of its triumph as well. Roger Ebert’s oft-quoted line about films being empathy machines rings loud and true here. The expression here is one of shared humanity regardless of background, gender identity, race or creed. The common language being used here is cinema.