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.