A few days ago, Isabel Sandoval tweeted a few images from four films she cites as influences on her third feature, Lingua Franca: Chantal Akerman’s News from Home (1976), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), James Gray’s Two Lovers (2008), and Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000). It’s been almost exactly one year to the day since Lingua Franca premiered at Venice Days before screening at festivals in Busan, London, and beyond. Writing for WBUR, Sean Burns notes that it was “the first feature film by a trans woman of color to play a lot of those places, but the movie doesn’t carry itself like a trailblazer. On paper, it might sound like your standard social issue melodrama, but on screen, it’s something dreamier and more elusive.”
Writer, director, editor, and coproducer Sandoval plays Olivia, an undocumented Filipina living with and caring for Olga (the late Lynn Cohen), an elderly Russian expatriate in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach. Right from the outset, Lingua Franca establishes itself as “a gorgeous and delicate picture, an understated work that opens a window on an intimate world,” writes Time’s Stephanie Zacharek. “Shot by Isaac Banks, it captures the lived-in luster of greater New York City’s older, not-so-rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.”
When Olga’s attractive yet troubled grandson, Alex (Eamon Farren), moves in, fresh out of rehab, it isn’t long before the friendship he strikes up with Olivia begins to evolve into something more. “Lingua Franca is sexy,” declares Drew Gregory at Autostraddle. “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 character’s struggles and the struggles so many undocumented immigrants faced before Trump and are facing now under Trump—and how transness intersects with this experience.”
At RogerEbert.com, Christy Lemire notes that Sandoval “doesn’t force the underlying tension of whether Alex knows Olivia is a trans woman—or whether that would matter—but rather lets it simmer. Similarly, news reports and anecdotes about ICE agents pulling immigrants from their homes and carting them away set the backdrop for Olivia’s increasing paranoia.” Like Jeannette Catsoulis in the New York Times, though, Lemire finds that Lingua Franca “might be a bit too understated.” But in Rolling Stone,David Fear suggests that the “sensibility here isn’t set to the key of Douglas Sirk so much as the American neo-neorealistic indies of the early 2000s, in which a documentary-like sense of place and a deliberate view of how time passes grounds everything, even when things drift into a semi-dreamlike state.”
As Ava DuVernay’s Array Releasing is now putting Lingua Franca in a few theaters while simultaneously giving it a streaming premiere on Netflix, Sandoval has been speaking with Carlos Aguilar (RogerEbert.com), Anne Cohen (Refinery29), Ryan Coleman (Little White Lies), Jude Dry (IndieWire), and Jose Solís (Film Stage).
For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.