'Lingua Franca': Film Review | Venice 2019

7107 Entertainment
Fascinating subject, boring treatment.

Isabel Sandoval's groundbreaking Venice Days premiere chronicles the daily struggles of an undocumented Filipina trans woman in New York.

Philippines-born, New York-based Isabel Sandoval becomes the the first trans woman of color to direct and star in a Venice competition film with Lingua Franca. Following two previous features, which won various festival awards and earned her a screening at the Museum of Modern Art, Sandoval dons multiple hats on this low-budget indie drama, doing auteur duty as director, screenwriter, actor, editor and co-producer. 

But while Sandoval's hard-working dedication is admirable, and her semi-autobiographical story full of latent dramatic potential, Lingua Franca is ultimately an underpowered, amateurish disappointment. Even with transgender screen stories earning more critical attention and mainstream acclaim than ever in recent years, this minor effort is unlikely to make a splash beyond festival audiences and specialist LGBT platforms. Following its Venice Days world premiere, it will also screen at the BFI London Film Festival next month.

Olivia (Sandoval) is a young, post-op Filipina trans woman working as a domestic carer to an elderly Russian-Jewish grandmother, Olga (Lynn Cohen), in the Brighton Beach neighborhood of New York. On top of her everyday struggles with family rejection back home, the ever present threat of violence from strangers in the U.S., and her fraught dealings with potential romantic partners who may not even realize she is trans, Olivia is also an undocumented immigrant who lives in constant fear of being detained and deported by ICE agents.

Olivia has a long-term financial deal with a New York boyfriend, paying him installments towards a future marriage of convenience to secure a Green Card. When that falls apart, she is distraught but resigned. As a marginalized minority, this kind of routine misfortune is clearly the background music to her life. But her gloomy prospects seem to take a more hopeful turn with the arrival of Olga's 29-year-old grandson Alex (Eamon Farren), a boozy drifter who has been away for several months in family-enforced rehab.

Working a part-time job at his grudging uncle's grim-looking slaughterhouse, Alex moves in with Olga and begins sharing care duties with Olivia, though his clumsy efforts fall far short of her compassionate, thoughtful daily routine. An unspoken flirtatious tension between the pair soon blossoms into an uneasy sexual relationship, although Alex is initially confused by his own feelings about dating a trans woman, cowed by the shaming taunts and jeers of his macho drinking buddies. Tenderly observed and clearly informed by authentic experience, Sandoval's film chronicles the rocky first act of their budding romance, walking a cautious line between sunny optimism and bittersweet realism.

Lingua Franca is a heartfelt personal statement rooted in timely, gripping issues that obviously resonate deeply with its author, notably trans rights and Trump-era immigration anxieties. Unfortunately, Sandoval's low-budget labor of love is also seriously hobbled by its stiff performances, shapeless plot and prosaic docu-drama shooting style. Full of clunky on-the-nose dialogue, too many scenes feel like stilted, undercooked rehearsals. Most damningly, for what is essentially a culture-clash love story, the screen chemistry between the two leads fizzles when it should sizzle.

Shining a light on a vulnerable substrata of American immigrant life rarely seen in mainstream cinema, Lingua Franca unquestionably has social and journalistic value, although a documentary treatment of the same subject would arguably have been more illuminating than this scrappy domestic drama. As a breakthrough symbol of progress in trans visibility at major film festivals, Sandoval's third feature is worth celebrating. But as an exercise in engaging and inspiring cinema, it falls resoundingly flat.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Days)
Production company: 7107 Entertainment
Cast: Isabel Sandoval, Eamon Farren, Ivory Aquino, PJ Boudousque, Lynn Cohen
Director, screenwriter, editor: Isabel Sandoval
Producers: Jhett Tolentino, Carlo Velayo. Darlene Catly Malimas, Isabel Sandoval
Cinematographer: Isaac Banks
Composer: Teresa Barrozo
Production designer: Clint Ramos
Sales company: Luxbox
95 minutes