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Film Review: In “Lingua Franca,” the Common Language Is Cinema

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | August 25th, 2020

Film poster: “Lingua Franca”

Lingua Franca (Isabel Sandoval, 2019) 3 out of 4 stars.

Gentle, efficient Olivia is caretaker to the elderly Olga in Brighton Beach, a Brooklyn, NY, enclave of Russian immigrants. Olivia is, herself, from the Philippines, and now living in the United States on borrowed time, her visa long ago expired. Given the climate of present-day America, her anxiety ratchets upwards every day, as ICE patrols the area. She could go back home to try to start over, legally, but she faces the additional challenge of being a trans woman and is worried about her potential fate under Filipino strongman Rodrigo Duterte. Between him and Donald Trump, she feels caught.

Such is the fraught setup of writer/director Isabel Sandoval’s new film, Lingua Franca. It’s her first time behind the camera as Isabel, though she made two previous features as Vincent, the 2012 Apparition and the 2011 Señorita. As she did in that first movie, she here stars, as well, imbuing Olivia with all the passion and angst the role deserves. It’s a moving story, well told.

In addition to Olga and Olivia, there is Alex, ne’er-do-well grandson to the former, just back from out of state and struggling against the twin demons of debt and addiction. His family sets him up with a job in a meat-packing plant (run by an uncle) and a room at Olga’s, with the caveat that he not mess up and take care of grandma when Olivia is out. Despite his issues, he’s a nice enough fellow, though completely irresponsible and more of a moody adolescent boy than a grown man. The old friends he soon finds himself among do not do him any favors, behavior-wise.

Isabel Sandoval as “Olivia” in LINGUA FRANCA – photo courtesy of ARRAY

Meanwhile, Olivia’s plans for a green card hit a snag, as her chosen fake suitor, whom she has been paying to make the deal, falls in actual love with someone else. With that additional stressor on top of the constant appeals from her mom in the Philippines for her “allowance,” the sight of her best friend (also trans) finding a partner and peace, and now the unpredictable Alex sleeping in the same apartment, things are not looking up for our protagonist. Maybe, just maybe, there may be more to Alex than meets the initial eye, however. Could he be her savior?

Beautifully composed and photographed by cinematographer Isaac Banks (solo-shooting his first full-length picture), Lingua Franca benefits from strong visuals that elevate the sometimes overly expositional scenes. Whether turning indoor spaces into lovely still lifes or framing well-known vistas like the Coney Island boardwalk, defunct Parachute Jump in the background, Banks and Sandoval populate their movie with strong, evocative images. As an actor, Sandoval fully commands our attention, and though Eamon Farren (Mohawk) may not be quite up to her level, he mostly holds his own, improving as the story progresses.

Isabel Sandoval as “Olivia” and Eamon Farren as “Alex” in LINGUA FRANCA – photo courtesy of ARRAY

The power is in the quiet moments, where behavior and glances matter more than words. There, Sandoval’s expressive face does its gut-wrenching work, each nuance perfectly captured by Banks’ camera. The moving image is the lingua franca of our age, and so it seems appropriate that the less said in Lingua Franca, the better. The gaze has it, and Sandoval’s is piercing.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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