Runtime: 91 minutes
Director: Natalie Morales
Writers: Natalie Morales & Mark Duplass
Stars: Natalie Morales, Mark Duplass
By Calum Cooper
Natalie Morales’ “Language Lessons” (2021) is a great example of a simple concept executed wonderfully. Its choice of storytelling – a computer screen film akin to “Unfriended” (2015) or “Searching” (2018) – is one that I imagine is only going to become more popular with time. But this is only a portion of this film’s identity. For, when you strip away its components, this is a story on connection and life.
Morales co-wrote the script for her film with Mark Duplass, both of whom portray the central characters of “Language Lessons”. Morales plays a Spanish teacher living in Costa Rica named Carino. Duplass plays a wealthy American from Oakland named Adam, whose husband Will (Desean Terry) pays Carino to give Adam online Spanish lessons. Specifically they are the immersive kind of language lessons in which student and teacher have to speak Spanish as much as possible.
Adam goes along with these lessons, and the duo find themselves having good rapport with each other. But then a tragedy affects one of them. The two decide to continue lessons despite what’s happened. After all, they’re on a 100 lesson agreement, so they might as well get their money’s worth. As more lessons occur, the two start to lean on each other as life begins to take its toll on the pair of them.
“It taps into its chosen style wonderfully, using the online lessons and brief video clips the pair exchange as gateways into their lives, and, to some extent, their very souls.”
“Language Lessons” strikes a great balance between comedy and tragedy, two genres which one could argue only has a thin line separating them at times. There is a sharpness to the dialogue and a playfulness to the direction that shines through the editing and character work. That’s because it taps into its chosen style wonderfully, using the online lessons and brief video clips the pair exchange as gateways into their lives, and, to some extent, their very souls.
There’s a lot of humour in this approach, and not just because the pair have similar styles of banter despite vastly different backgrounds. She is a young working class Latina woman, and he is a white wealthy middle-aged Westerner after all. Yet those differences cease to matter as the two converse with one another, their lessons feeling more like conversations over a pint than a student teacher dynamic. Adam has some experience with Spanish, but it’s been a while and his rustiness does provide plenty of humour in its own right – including one especially funny exchange when he learns what “embarazado” actually means. Yet the film basks in the naturally funny setup of two people simply bouncing off each other, letting the magnetic chemistry of Morales and Duplass work its magic.
Yet there is an element of melancholy mixed into the good humour. The tragic incident that occurs 18 minutes into the film allows for Carino and Adam to be more vulnerable around each other. As more details slowly come out about each other, the more the two feel connected, and our previous colourful glimpses into their lives become shrouded in solemn layers. Morales and Duplass’ script, as well as the editing from Ashleka Ferreno, all reflect this change marvellously. The editing keeps us both immersed in and somewhat distant from their friendship, meaning we feel more enamoured with each amusing interaction, but as little as a cut away or a line of dialogue hits us with a sucker punch called reality. We, like the characters, question how much we really know about them, while still maintaining a concrete investment in them.
“This is a love story in a sense, but it details the strength of platonic love rather than the romantic kind. In avoiding romance, Morales and her team explore the value of human life and connection in poignant, delightful detail.”
Morales and her team are cleverly using their setup, characters, and story to explore themes of sadness and connection, as well as the link between the two. Even though these two characters are different in virtually every regard – sex, age, class, language and culture – they still find unity through grief and uncertainty, perhaps two of the only things that can break down borders and create a universal happiness in each other. That is precisely what these characters find in each other. This is a love story in a sense, but it details the strength of platonic love rather than the romantic kind. In avoiding romance, Morales and her team explore the value of human life and connection in poignant, delightful detail.
While this is a beautifully realised film with a lot of great stuff going for it, it does unfortunately slip up a little towards the end. Not drastically in fairness, but it does end up relying somewhat on typical third act drama to keep the story going a little longer, resulting in your usual story thread of characters arguing before reconciling. It doesn’t derail “Language Lessons” – far from it – but it does feel like something of a safety net; as if the writers were afraid the themes on display wouldn’t work out as well as they do. It’s a pity to see as I personally felt the material was titanically strong in terms of engagement and relatability. To see the film rely on a crutch that it didn’t need does leave something of a sting, even with its heartfelt final image.
However, with that said, I believe this is a hurdle Morales will find easier to jump, or even flat out disregard, as she becomes more confident in her filmmaking. For one questionable decision should not, and in this case does not, undermine the rest of the work. And “Language Lessons” is one extremely sincere and equally funny portrayal of human connection regardless of external barriers. Its dialogue is sharp, its characters are intoxicating, and its observations are both timely and earnest. All while presenting its arguments in a creatively playful fashion. I predict that this film will become a sleeper hit with time – it certainly deserves to be one.