“Lingua Franca” Is a Masterpiece — Written By, Directed By, and Starring a Trans Woman

Lingua Franca is sexy.

This isn’t a sentence you’re likely to read a lot in discussions of Isabel Sandoval’s remarkable new film about an undocumented Filipina trans woman working as a live-in caregiver. But it’s true. It’s sexy.

Sandoval — who is the writer, director, and star — is herself a Filipina trans woman and, yes, with that comes a level of nuance and specificity. But it also brings a lightness — humor, sexuality — that a white cis filmmaker might never see.

Sandoval plays Olivia, a woman who is tender and sensual, forceful and focused. She is good at her job taking care of Olga (Lyn Cohen) and sends money home to her mother when she can. She finds comfort in her friend Trixie (Ivory Aquino), another Filipina trans woman, and with Trixie’s help is planning a second attempt at a green card marriage. She fears every day that ICE will take her away. And then she meets Olga’s grandson, Alex (Eamon Farren). He’s struggling with alcoholism and some toxic friendships but he likes Olivia and she likes him too. Soon after he moves in, Olivia masturbates thinking of his hands caressing her body.

This isn’t a love story, nor is it free from the pain that accompanies being trans and an undocumented immigrant. But this moment is sexy. And when they kiss, when they fuck, it’s overwhelming. There’s a scene after Alex finds out Olivia is trans where he watches trans porn with a cold detached gaze and it reminded me how rare it is to see our sexuality as anything but that. Not here. The gaze in this film is Sandoval’s. She knows that she’s hot and she invites us to feel that with her as subject not object.

What cis filmmakers don’t understand is that to experience Olivia’s want for sex and romance, to witness her deep friendship with another trans woman, to see her in the world as a complete person, is to understand how much she has to lose. This is a political film that’s explicit about its characters struggles and the struggles so many undocumented immigrants faced before Trump and are facing now under Trump — and how transness intersects with this experience. But the reason it’s so effective is because Sandoval doesn’t need to remind herself that Olivia is more than a prop. She’s not fascinated by Olivia’s experiences as an outsider. She knows her and understands her and sees the entire humanity within her.

I’m excited about this film, because it’s the rare feature written by, directed by, and starring a trans woman. But I’m also excited about it, because it’s an undeniably accomplished work of cinema. Not only is this film more than its labels because Sandoval sees her character’s humanity — it’s more than its labels because Sandoval is so good in all her roles. This is a patient and artful film, nuanced in its writing and direction, and filled with stellar performances.

At any point, Olivia’s life as she knows it could be over. She describes the constant fear — looking over her shoulder, flinching at every van that drives near. But she holds onto her power in the ways that she can. She still wants and she still lives and she still refuses to compromise on what she knows she deserves. This film is haunting, and this film is upsetting, but it’s hopeful in a way too. It’s hopeful because it says here is this woman and despite the cruelty of the world, she’s going to step forward into the next day with her entire self. It’s hopeful because it says here is this filmmaker and despite the cruelty of the world, she’s going to step forward into the next day with her entire self. It’s hopeful because this is just the beginning for Olivia, for Sandoval, for the trans cinema we deserve.

Lingua Franca is now playing on Netflix.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 562 articles for us.


  1. I had a ticket to see this at Flare, the London LGBTQ+ film festival that (obviously) got cancelled in March, and I was so disappointed to miss it. Such wonderful news that Netflix has bought it! Can’t wait to check it out.

    • Hi, I am what is considered normal(straight) in this high society of “You gotta be the right gender identified,or else”. Well it being true God creating us male female physically, yet in each of us lays an unseen soul that physically identifies us but in mind spirit and conscience follow our inner emotions(which are unseen)such as our souls that can be challenged as to who we really are even in gender,where externally it is confirmed physically to the public,and yet. God makes no mistakes yet we are given free will and we use that in guiding our lives. We are told by him to “love our neighbors” not to hate them if they gender themselves unsatisfactory to the hetero society. We answer to him alone not man. That being said(cuz I talk too long) this movie write Ms Sandoval I commend her. Job well done.

  2. I know I’m a little late to the game but I just wanted to say that this film is beautiful and Isabel did an incredible job in every possible way. The themes compliment and complicate each other, the cinematography and imagery is just so detailed, the emotions run high and Olivia’s character is just so uniquely layered. She’s not just a trans woman, she’s not just a Philippine woman, or an undocumented immigrant. She’s a person with her own wants, needs, humor, vulnerability, sexuality, conscious…The film is just so in depth and lovely and emotional and real. It’s placed together in a way that feels fantastic, and so bleakly realistic and natural. It’s too much. And then it’s everything. It’s there. It’s a declaration.
    I’m not even a trans person, or an immigrant, (though my mother is.) But I just wanted to compliment all of this.

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