In Lingua Franca, writer/director Isabel Sandoval plays Olivia, an undocumented live-in caregiver trying to secure her green card amidst the Trump administration’s immigration policies. “Choose immigrants that are the likeliest to thrive” she hears the president say on the radio, and he goes on to cut the number of green cards issued in half. Being a Filipina trans woman, she has not been chosen; when ICE raids houses in her Brighton Beach neighborhood, she sees herself in every arrest.
Olivia cares for Olga (Lynn Cohen), a senile Russian immigrant, constantly reassuring her that she’s at home: “Don’t you remember picking that wallpaper yourself when you had your son Roman?” But Olivia hasn’t made enough memories of her own in either Olga’s house or in the US for them to feel like home. Both women are displaced. Sandoval frames the house in static compositions, high contrast, and cool tones (like many row houses, it doesn’t get much light) until Olga’s grandson Alex (Eamon Farren) moves in, and his presence immediately wreaks havoc on their routine. The cool lighting is replaced by noxious sodium vapor lamps. Alex and his friends spout transphobic slurs and play video games late into the night. The camera only ever moves to follow him, often around the job his mother got him at an abattoir.
The tensions between Olivia and Alex build to an affair. “What language do you speak in the Philippines?” He asks during one of their first encounters. “We have 86 languages, actually,” she replies. He makes a funny face; it’s already too complicated for him to consider. Olivia knows Tagalog, but grew up speaking Cebuano, a lingua franca — that is, a bridge language between people with different native languages. 300 years of Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines saw Cebuano take on several Spanish mutations, and 48 years of US colonization produced numerous English loans to Tagalog. English is now an official language of the Philippines. It is their language of commerce and law, the primary medium of educational instruction, and the bridge language between Olivia and Alex.
But they can’t seem to forge a connection beyond their physical needs. “I crave your hands, their myriad alien hunger, emissaries of carnage wandering in the moonlight, scorching the earth, engulfing me in flames,” Olivia waxes poetic to herself about Alex in Cebuano. Alex fulfills her fantasy without his knowledge. Conversely, his shortsighted will to “fix” her situation only impedes it, and his savior complex shrinks her. After his friend rummages through Olivia’s room, Alex covers for him — to him, this is only a little white lie, but to her it’s a devastating violation of her security.
Though Sandoval sells Olivia’s perspective in brief and remarkable performance notes, Alex dominates the film both structurally and aesthetically. Dramatic confrontations often split the two apart, but instead of sculpting the film around Olivia, an energized camera follows Alex as he broods, wrestles, hits a punching bag, or imbibes before work. When he’s sulking at a club and receives a text from Olivia asking him to come home, one wonders why the film is with him and not her, why her feelings have been made the subject of suspense. Perhaps the conceit is that Olivia is further alienated and reduced through having to rely on the colonialist lingua franca of English, and by Alex’s solipsistic inability to grasp the depth of her experience. But the film should not also obscure her experience itself.