This review original appeared at Cinema Scholars
Filmed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, director/writer/star Natalie Morales and writer/star Mark Duplass set the bar for socially-distant filmmaking with Language Lessons. The duo stretch the concept to its breaking point but get by on their charm and easy chemistry.
Cariño (Morales) offers online Spanish lessons. Adam (Duplass) is the unwitting recipient of these lessons from his husband Will. Adam already speaks Spanish fairly well, but the first lessons goes off without much issue.
When Adam misses his second lesson, Cariño reaches out and begins the lesson while he is in bed. Adam reveals Will passed away in an accident and struggles to cope. Cariño uses the only skills she knows to help Adam, as she continues to reach out and provide Spanish lessons.
As the days and weeks progress, Adam begins to move forward with Cariño’s help. With their lesson’s continuing and they learn more about each other, the pair begin to transcend the lessons and grow their friendship beyond that of a student-teacher.
The entirety of the narrative takes place through a Zoom/Skype-like video app. The COVID-19 pandemic is never mentioned and the world is spinning like it is supposed to. The lessons Cariño offers are online solely because she lives in Costa Rica.
The film’s premise is a time-capsule to the summer of 2020. Obviously, Language Lessons is not designed to have the audience reminisce about being stuck indoors with nowhere to go, but the film benefits from never shoehorning in ways for the characters to be alone or at home.
Duplass and Morales spare the audience from COVID-related anxiety and instead focus on the real-life anxieties borne of other circumstances beyond your control.
Grief plays a large role. Adam doesn’t know what to do following Will’s death. Neither does Cariño. The only thing she knows how to do is be present. Initially, following their disastrous second session, Cariño begins sending pleasantries to Adam and actually assigns him homework. Cariño later believes this to be a deal-breaker, but the homework lifts Adam out of a funk and begins regular friendly communication between the two.
Adam’s grief is not simple. He is not sitting around crying non-stop, it ebbs and flows. He can make jokes to Cariño while feeling terrible at other parts of the day. His grief is constant but it does not drive him. Cariño is driven by grief as well. The early death of her mother and grandmother hang over her and lead her own story.
Platonic friendships are rare in films, mostly because a man and a woman put together in a situation feel destined to end up together. In Language Lessons, Adam’s homosexuality and Cariño’s heterosexuality immediately extinguish any notion of physical romance, but their relationship grows closer as the lessons continue. Adam continues to push for information on Cariño’s life, while Cariño pushes back and attempts to remain sheltered.
The film also touches on interesting themes. Adam is very wealthy and any problem he sees with Cariño’s life, he wants to throw money at it. Cariño pushes back on this and reminds him of how his wealth does not make him better than she is. Adam’s privilege is constantly being criticized and commented on by Cariño and himself.
The two actors are the sole reason this film works. Duplass has the more straight-forward narrative, changing from a calmly confident man to a shaken shell of himself who attempts to pick up the pieces. Morales takes over half the film to earn her own story arch, but when it does, it overtakes Duplass as the audience’s main concern.
The two actors converse in both English and Spanish, with each commanding their particular languages. The film feels like two friends talking over the internet, because Morales and Duplass both wrote the film and are friends in real-life.
The second-half of the film is a real showcase for Morales’ talents, shifting from confident and friendly to passive-aggressive tension. Duplass lets Morales cook and doesn’t get too much in the way. Morales also lets Duplass do the heavy lifting for the film’s first half, never drawing too much attention away from him.
Pandemic-filmed films can be contrived and intrusive, but Language Lessons never reaches that point. At a crisp 91 minutes, the “only on a computer” trick doesn’t outstay its welcome and sets a high-bar for what minimalist cinema can be. Morales and Duplass should take pride in utilizing this rare time to deliver a film with this much heart.