Isabel Sandoval’s third feature Lingua Franca offers us a transient, emotional look into New York, the city captured in its quiet mundane moments. Through the film’s charming meditation on life as a healthcare worker, Sandoval expresses the reality of undocumented immigrants in Trump’s America.
Lingua Franca focuses on the story of Olivia (Sandoval), a domestic helper. She exists in the intersection of multiple marginalized identities in the United States as a transgender woman and as an undocumented Filipino immigrant. Her hardships are reflected in her struggle to lead her life. She falls for her client’s grandson Alex (Eamon Farren), who is in the process of getting his life back together after some run-in with the law and drinking problems.
Olivia’s infatuation with Alex starts in a beautiful scene that fully represents Sandoval’s skills in performing and directing. Alex reads aloud a letter that his grandfather wrote to his grandmother that is both sweet and suggestive. Olivia is entranced by how Alex reads the letter, which is shown through intimate close-ups of Alex. We linger as the scene shifts into Olivia’s fantasy of Alex touching her and her responding to the letter in her native tongue, Cebuano. This is a pivotal moment not only because it is the start of her attraction but also because this is the first time we see Olivia exist outside of her job and her obligations. We see what she really wants in her life: to be loved.
Sandoval carefully explores Olivia’s desires through her dreamy direction and her realistic responses. The audience follows along in her journey and sees her get close as the stars align in her favor. The film’s complications raise the question of whether our self-worth is worth sacrificing for what we want.
“My film captures emotions that are not easy, obvious and straightforward,” Sandoval says of the film. “I’m not the type of filmmaker that is into crowd-pleasing and I think that resonates with audiences.” This is evident in the open ending of the film that does not neatly tie the love story. It can be argued that there is something lost in the story by not giving it a more conclusive ending, but I believe that she made the best choice. The emotions carried throughout the film had to emerge in some form. We don’t see a dramatic showdown or emotional fight. Rather, we see Olivia taking ownership of her reaction to her situation. She refuses what she desperately wants and needs in favor of preserving her dignity.