Always a bridesmaid.
There are few things worse in this life than to be refused one’s humanity. Whether the result of bigotry via the lens of race, gender, sexuality, and age or mistrust via a desire to underestimate, reduce people to their biggest regrets, or dismiss sight unseen, our capacity to treat others as “less than” ourselves is growing at an exponential rate. And for what? A laugh? A false sense of superiority deflecting from one’s own shortcomings? So much about how we as Americans act boils down to our ease at hiding our privilege behind posturing, religion, and politics. It’s a dangerous truth because the ways in which eyes can be opened to “the other” through art and shared experiences are rendered inert. Dehumanization becomes normalized and freedom becomes conditional.
So while Isabel Sandoval‘s film Lingua Franca is about an undocumented Filipino trans woman named Olivia (played by the writer/director herself), it refocuses her strife from that of an outsider-centered, socially-conscious story to one highlighting the ways in which her struggles are universally resonate on an emotional, human level. She does it by allowing her supporting characters equal complexity to her lead. The older woman (Lynn Cohen‘s Olga) Olivia cares for isn’t just a means of providing the setting for what occurs next. Olga’s adult grandson (Eamon Farren‘s Alex) isn’t just some guy the plot can force into an unlikely romantic connection to prove a point. They too are human beings feeling undo pressure from truths outside their control. They know what it’s like to be denigrated.
That said, however, their battles aren’t equal. Olga is suffering from dementia and gradually becoming less able to care for herself. So while her family (first and second generation Russian immigrants) is frustrated enough in response to belittle that capacity and treat her like an invalid before doing so is necessary, that betrayal comes from a place of love. The same goes for Alex—an alcoholic running out of chances that’s returned home to restart his life in an attempt to stay sober and rehabilitate his reputation. Does it suck that those who know him best are waiting for him to fail? Yes. But they’re giving him the opportunity anyway. Alex can reinvent himself above this safety net without worrying about anyone other than himself cutting it down.
Olivia doesn’t have those luxuries. She has no family to help or time to waste. Her passport remains misgendered because the Philippines won’t allow citizens to legally change their gender from birth and she can’t trade it in for an American document that will. Her reinvention is thus reliant upon secrets, money, and nonguaranteed vigilance. It’s contingent upon working night and day for Olga, paying a man to marry her for a green card, and keeping a low profile while Trump’s White House cracks down with ICE raids of non-criminal immigrants. And those who aren’t being crushed by the weight of such things can’t begin to fathom how it feels. Someone used to handouts like Alex looks at Olivia and earnestly asks, “Why don’t you just become legal?”
The line hits like a slap to the face even though he quickly corrects himself to ask, “How do you become legal?” This guy has squandered his privilege only to find it still protects him and yet he’s reducing an over-complicated problem to a case of “want” as if the millions of undocumented immigrants living here are dragging their feet rather than being stonewalled at every turn. Because Alex isn’t far removed from someone who had similar problems (albeit in a drastically different era), however, he does find the capacity for self-awareness where his ignorance is concerned. He sees how dangerous it is for Olivia and how much she does for his family by having the patience for Olga that they do not. He knows he’s been lucky.
But that luck can’t help her. His vulnerability—exacerbated by so-called friends who selfishly cajole him into drinking with them instead of caring about his recovery—in befriending her and sparking an affair won’t save her. Olivia isn’t in America solely to work and send money home. She’s here to live. So paying someone to be her husband in order to do it isn’t the same as willfully exploiting a stranger’s shame and pity. Being a woman adds a layer to her identity. Being undocumented adds another. Put trans on top and the fantasy of having everything all at once starts to feel impossible—especially with the clock ticking down on whether ICE will be knocking on her door next. She must ask why Alex cares. Why her?
It’s a question without an answer because even he doesn’t know. We live in a society that positions one’s circumstances as crutches and/or obstructions to lean on or succumb to respectively. Whereas our humanity should bind us together despite those things, it actually gets forgotten beneath them. Does Alex have feelings for Olivia because of who she is? Or is she merely some karmic exchange wherein his assistance can erase some of the destruction he’s left in his wake? In all honestly: it might be a little bit of both. Depending on when he discovers this fact, however, it might already be too late. That clarity could still save him from his past and Olivia from her present, but what about their futures? What would they be sacrificing?
That is where Lingua Franca‘s power resides. It depicts lost souls confronting impossible choices that pit their comfort against their humanity. The logical choice is not to have that drink or not to get swept away by fantasy and compromise reality. Life isn’t logical, though. And it’s not fair. While many wield this truth as a means of exposing injustice, Sandoval mines deeper than a superficial soapbox to either preach to the choir or inflame. She showcases the messiness familiar to everyone. Her characters generally make the correct decisions, but the journeys there aren’t always pure. Considerations beyond convenience must therefore be taken. Trust must be earned. The difference between a handout and love is greater than appearances sometimes reveal. It’s often dependent upon whether you love yourself.