Published Aug 20, 2020Lingua Franca, the Centerpiece Gala film at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival, is beautifully understated, technically accomplished and sensitively written. Director/actor Isabel Sandoval's third feature, on the heels of 2011's Señorita and 2012's Apparition, Lingua Franca follows Olivia (Sandoval), an undocumented Filipina transwoman living in New York City. She is working as a caregiver to the elderly Olga (Lynn Cohen), whose mental health is on the verge of deterioration. The term "lingua franca" refers to a shared language or form of communication between people whose first languages are different, a concept that this film thoughtfully and subtly explores in its narrative and imagery.
The film opens with Olivia speaking with her mother on the phone, their voices carrying over shots of empty rooms, streets and subway stations around Brooklyn's Brighton Beach neighbourhood. The film then cuts to Alex (Eamon Farron), Olga's grandson, being trained for his new job at a slaughterhouse, before cutting to Olga, confusedly puttering around in her kitchen. Within the first few minutes, and without much dialogue, Sandoval establishes the interconnectedness of these characters and their unique circumstances and struggles. By focusing on quiet moments and intimate details, the film emphasizes the different ways people try to find comfort in a harsh and often terrifying world. Sandoval creates tension by hinting at the suffering always lurking beneath the film's placid surface: Alex's addiction issues, Olga's Alzheimer's, Olivia's precarious immigration status.
Inundated by heartbreaking news reports, the President's xenophobic rhetoric, and ICE raids taking place in front of her on the street, Olivia lives with constant terror and anxiety wondering if and when someone will exploit her undocumented status. After Alex learns that Olivia is trans, rather than accept their genuine romantic connection, he fabricates a story about seeing an intruder leaving her bedroom, cruelly implying that ICE is spying on her. Yet Sandoval never flattens Olivia's experience by turning her into a tragic figure, making space for her exhaustion and trauma but also for joy, pleasure and mundanity. Sandoval avoids clichéd ideas about human connection transcending difference, and instead focuses on how peoples' specific experiences with class, race, gender, ability and sexuality shape the way they connect with others and build relationships.
Olivia's deep sisterly connection with her best friend Trixie (Ivory Aquino) is perhaps the most important relationship in the film, and in one lovely scene, the women sit together in a quiet church, reminiscing about how they used to look out for each other when they were bullied as children in Cebu. They continue to look out for each other in New York, as Trixie works hard to find a suitable green card husband for Olivia, and neither gives up hope, even when Olivia's prospective partner bails on her at the last minute. Rather than sensationalizing the moment when Olivia breaks off her tentative romance with Alex after he betrays her trust, Sandoval quietly emphasizes that Olivia will recover with the help of her strong support system of Trixie and her friends.
A sensitive, understated, and emotionally resonant film, Lingua Franca rejects the idea that narratives focused on queer and trans women must solely focus on trauma and pain, and instead makes room for the characters to be fully humanized and complex. The film utilizes editing, softly muted imagery and a lack of diegetic music to emphasize the importance of the small, ephemeral moments that make up these characters' lives. A perfect selection for the Centerpiece Gala at VQFF, Lingua Franca is an excellent showcase of Sandoval's incredible talents as both a filmmaker and performer.
Vancouver Queer Film Festival is taking place online from August 13 to 23. (7107 Entertainment)