Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: For the final Watch This series of the year, we’re again highlighting some of the best movies of 2020 that we didn’t review.
A passport is a loaded thing for Olivia (Isabel Sandoval). She’s an undocumented immigrant in New York City, and also a transgender woman, which places her in a bind: Because she doesn’t want to draw too much attention to herself, she can’t attempt to get her passport updated with her true gender, lest the authorities find out in the process that she’s overstayed her visa. That makes the little booklet a reminder of past traumas and very present anxieties. None of this is explicitly laid out in the dialogue of Lingua Franca, Sandoval’s understated third feature. But it doesn’t have to be, as her muted directing style conveys volumes through subtle expressions, subliminal gestures, and thoughtful compositions that make poignant use of negative space.
Lingua Franca is a love story, focusing on the tentative relationship between Olivia and Alex (Twin Peaks: The Return’s Eamon Farren), the grandson of an elderly Russian Jewish woman named Olga (Lynn Cohen) for whom Olivia works as a live-in nurse. It’s also a story about communication, and connection, and the search for a place—or a person—to call home. Many people depend on Olivia. There’s Olga, of course. There’s also Olivia’s mother back in the Philippines; the film opens with a phone call from her, wondering when the next care package will arrive. But who can Olivia depend on? She carries all of her burdens by herself, and is reluctant, even frightened, to share them with others. Years of constant stress and paranoia (the film uses news reports and clips from Trump speeches as nerve-fraying background static) have closed her off. She gets a green card the only way she knows how: by paying an American man to marry her, rendering what should be a loving relationship into a cold, transactional one.
For Olivia to reconnect to her body and her desires would be a radical act, given how much the outside world seems to hate her just for existing. But that’s exactly what happens in Lingua Franca, as Olivia’s self-respect blossoms like the petals of a flower through small moments of care and comfort. These moments are intimate in different ways. During a sex scene between Olivia and Alex, Sandoval conveys hesitation giving way to overwhelming pleasure as the camera lingers on her face. But she pulls farther back for a tender moment between Olivia and childhood classmate Trixie (Ivory Aquino), also a trans woman now living in New York City. As Trixie softly sings a hymn from their Catholic school days, Olivia inhales deeply. She puts her head on her friend’s shoulder, and Sandoval cuts from a medium shot to a close-up. Face lined with exhaustion and jaw set in anticipation of future indignities, she closes her eyes, and begins to relax.
Lingua Franca is not a transition story, nor is it a story about migration. For Olivia, both of those events, seismic as they may have been, are in the past. She made it to the place and became the person she needed to be, but lost herself amid all the sacrifices she had to make to get there. Sometimes revolutions are loud, dramatic affairs. For Olivia, just allowing herself to love, to be loved, and to love herself is enough.
Availability: Lingua Franca is now streaming on Netflix.