A low-key blend of romance and immigration drama, “Lingua Franca” follows Olivia (Isabel Sandoval, who also wrote and directed), an undocumented Filipino transgender woman living in Brighton Beach.
Desperate to obtain legal residency, Olivia works as a caregiver to an aging Russian expatriate named Olga (Lynn Cohen). Solicitous to her mentally declining charge, Olivia is anxiously saving the money she needs to pay off a man who has promised to marry her. She has been let down before; but, in the absence of a genuine relationship, she sees no other option. Then she meets Alex (Eamon Farren), Olga’s troubled grandson, and recognizes that her immigration status might not be her most paramount concern after all.
Glancingly addressing major issues — privacy, personal liberty, sexual satisfaction — Sandoval, working from an idea formed during her own gender transition, quietly contemplates lives under stress. Against a backdrop of ICE raids and anti-immigrant commentary, Olivia navigates green-card setbacks while Alex juggles dependency issues, a distrustful family and a dangerous new job.
As Alex finds tenderness in their connection and an escape from judgment, Farren brings a heat to the role that the movie instinctively bends toward. Sandoval’s directing style is humane and empathetic, but her acting has an aloofness that risks leaving Olivia unattended, an emotional question mark. The mood is meditative, the camera patient; yet the film is too dramatically shy and narratively slight to stir.
“You’re safe now,” Alex promises Olivia at one point. Yet, strangely, he’s the one who finally seems at peace.
Not rated. In English, Tagalog and Russian, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 29 minutes. Watch on Netflix.