Lingua Franca (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): An intimate transgender immigrant drama

I always cherish movies showing and transporting us into the lives of different people, and “Lingua Franca”, which was released on Netflix in US in last August, is one of such good movies. Mainly revolving around the urban daily life and struggle of its transgender immigrant heroine, the movie comes to us as an intimate character drama frankly and sensitively dealing with gender identity and several other social issues, and it is alternatively heartbreaking and poignant to see her fragile and uncertain life.

After the calm and quiet opening scene showing the beginning of another day in a Russian Jewish neighborhood of Brooklyn in New York City, the movie phlegmatically depicts how a Filipina transgender immigrant named Olivia (Isabel Sandoval) earns her living via working as a live-in caregiver for an old lady named Olga (Lynn Cohen). Because she has been on the early stage of dementia, Olga often needs to be reminded of where she is now, and Olivia tactfully handles Olga with care and attention in addition to maintaining the status quo in Olga’s small but cozy residence.

So far, taking care of Olga has provided considerable stability to Olivia’s life, but we soon come to see how unstable Olivia’s life actually is. Because of that shocking political rise of Donald J. Trump and the following social ramifications in US, the situation becomes quite more dangerous for Olivia and many other immigrants, and she is often afraid of the possibility of getting suddenly arrested and then sent back to the Philippines. She managed to get some American dude to marry her and then help her getting a green card, but then it turns out that there is a passport problem involved with her gender transition, and that certainly frustrates her a lot.

Meanwhile, there comes another person into Olga and Olivia’s daily life, and that person in question is Olga’s grandson Alex (Eamon Farren), who starts to stay in Olga’s residence while trying to get employed at his uncle’s butcher shop. As an alcoholic who has been recovering since a certain big legal problem of his, this lad is willing to make a fresh clean start for his life, but he still cannot say no when one of his friends suggests that he should drink along with others, and, of course, that consequently leads to another regretful morning for him.

Anyway, he tries to take care of his grandmother alone while Olivia is absent, but Alex soon comes to see how hard and difficult the job really is, so he comes to depend more on Olivia, who generously provides him some guidance and support while also finding herself slowly attracted to him. At one point, she simply watches him reading an old letter for his grandmother, but a series of closeup shots clearly convey to us her thoughts and feelings at that point, and we are not so surprised when we later see her quietly lusting after him alone in private.

In case of Alex, he also becomes attracted to Olivia while not knowing her gender identity at all. When he approaches to her more actively, Olivia does not reject him at all, but she becomes conflicted about whether she should be more honest with him. As getting to know more of her unstable social status, Alex shows more sympathy toward Olivia, and it looks like she finally gets a chance for settling permanently in US, but she hesitates because, well, she cares about him as much as he loves her.

Now this looks like a typical setup for melodrama, but the movie sticks to its low-key tone as usual. While occasionally emphasizing how the situation has been getting worse out there for Olivia and many other immigrants due to those deplorable and heartless immigration policies of the Trump administration, the screenplay by director/writer/co-producer Isabel Sandoval, a Filipina transgender filmmaker who also edited the movie besides playing the heroine of the film, keeps focusing on its heroine’s daily life, and we are reminded more of how it can be suddenly turned upside down at any chance.

And we also see how Olivia’s unexpected romance with Alex provides some precious comfort to her. As they become more serious about their relationship than expected, Alex even considers marrying her right now for solving her current trouble once for all, but it is apparent to us that he does not have much thought on their subsequent married life. In case of Olivia, she is certainly happy to be with Alex, and she later has a sweet romantic moment with him while “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is being played in the background, but she still hesitates on what to do with her relationship with Alex.

The ending of the movie is a bit too ambiguous in my humble opinion, but it is presented well with admirable restraint, and Sandoval carries the film well with her earnest lead performance while also supported well by a small group of supporting performers surrounding her. Besides having a nice chemistry with Sandoval on the screen, Eamon Farren is convincing as a flawed but decent young man trying his best for pulling himself together, and Lynn Cohen, who incidentally died in last February, holds her own small place as another substantial supporting character in the film.

In conclusion, “Lingua Franca” is a modest but solid piece of work to be admired and appreciated for its sensitive storytelling in addition to its honest and thoughtful handling of social issues. Although it initially requires some patience from you because of its rather slow narrative pacing, the movie is a rewarding experience on the whole, and you will never forget its heroine after it is over.

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