“Lingua Franca” is a subtle and sensual story of two very different people struggling with secrets, trying to find common ground or even a common language to talk about what’s happening to them and between them.
Filipina-American writer-director Isabel Sandoval (“Apparition,” not the horror film) didn’t just find the perfect title for this New York story. She’s written and starred in a story ripped straight from the zeitgeist, about people soldiering through problems, looking for solutions and connections, seeking love and keeping secrets. And if it’s not wholly satisfying, at least their story human in its, and their, shortcomings.
Olivia (Sandoval) is an in-home caregiver to an elderly Russian-American (Lynn Cohen) in Brighton Beach. Olga is having forgetful spells and difficult moments, but Olivia, an Filipina immigrant whose visa has expired, treats her with calm and compassion.
Olivia supports family back home, but has to spend a big chunk of her money saving to pay off Matthew. The only permanent solution to her dilemma, which she is bombarded with in constant “Trump/immigrants/ICE” news updates, is marriage, like others in her plight. Matthew has agreed to marry her for her Green Card. Until he changes his mind.
That’s just the moment Olga’s grandson Alex (Eamon Farren) comes back to town. He’s been working on “a farm” somewhere in the Midwest. His uncle hooks him up with a job at an abattoir, a slaughterhouse/meat wholesaler. He reconnects with the family and with old friends. But his reluctance to drink suggests he wants to avoid old habits.
He moves in to grandma’s house with the idea that he’s going to take up some of the slack there.
Alex and Olivia move from him learning Olga’s routine — “The schedule is there to help you, not control you” — to something closer. He takes an interest in her culture as he helps her run errands to the Ditmas Park Filipino neighborhood. He asks about her language — Tagalog.
But as they connect, each keeps things from the other. They share intimacy and find their “lingua franca.” It’s what they don’t say that’s going to be an obstacle.
Sandoval goes for a subtle, words-unspoken thing here that is only obvious when she punches a point home with the obvious. Olivia doesn’t want just a paid-off marriage of convenience. She wants love, romance and sex.
Putting “Lady Chatterly’s Lover” on her dresser gets that across. But heck, let’s whip out the vibrator to underscore that point.
The chemistry in the relationship isn’t perfect. She talks a lot more than him, and her big problem dominates that conversation. There’s a disparity between their secrets, at least in conventional terms. Each is the stuff of “deal breakers,” but one is downright mundane and the other as current as the cultural dustup over pronouns.
Sandoval is an understated actress, and the director in her lets the simple framing of Olivia alone in a crowded, bustling and sometimes dangerous city get across her isolation and her brave stoicism.
Farren, of “Winchester” and the “Twin Peaks” revival, doesn’t give us much in the way of Alex’s attraction, confusion, neediness and anger. The fact that the guy is stuck working at a slaughterhouse, and accepts that, tells us that he’s bottling up something — a lot of somethings.
I didn’t wholly buy into them or “him” in “Lingua Franca.” There’s too much left out for that sale to be made.
But Sandoval has made a film with cultural currency and the rich texture of a New York setting for a story as immediate as today’s headlines, and just as sad.
MPAA Rating: unrated, sex, nudity, alcohol abuse
Cast: Isabel Sandoval, Eamon Farren, Lynn Cohen and Ivory Aquino
Credits: Written and directed by Isabel Sandoval. An Array release.
Running time: 1:29