Two virtual strangers find solace in each other, and use it as a shield to grief, whilst building a friendship in the most unique of circumstances. Language Lessons (2021) follows Carino (Natalie Morales), an online Spanish teacher who is giving lessons to an initially begrudging Adam (Mark Duplass). However, when tragedy unexpectedly strikes, the two become more dependent on each other and begin to develop a strong dynamic. The film is the directorial debut for actor Morales, and takes place almost entirely on zoom.
Corona virus has dominated every aspect of our lives in the last year and it is very clear this story dynamic is created as a way to make a film in the pandemic, but Covid itself is never actually referenced in the film, and the zoom setting is purely due to the two characters being in two different countries. After over a year in the pandemic, ‘Zoom fatigue’ is very much a real thing and something Hollywood too is going to be quickly faced with, but the way the film uses it is inventive and engaging enough to make us forget the way we are watching it, and just be engrossed in the characters.
An interesting element to the film is that due to the premise of online language lessons, the majority of the film is actually in Spanish, without it ever presenting itself as a foreign language film from the outset. When Bong Joon-Ho made his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes last year, he said “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films”, and it is a truth that western audiences still are behind the curve on. The film does to the audience the same thing that happens to Adam, as he unknowingly becomes completely invested in not just a new language, but the culture and people that comes with. Dialect can shape our view of the world and the way we behave, being willing to dig deeper and learn about other cultures can make us fairer and more rounded people, and that is what Morales achieves by shaping the character of Adam here.
We are intentionally told very little about the two characters at the outset, but are gradually drip-fed information about them as they reveal themselves. Adam has been married to Will (Desean Terry) for around a year and is still adjusting to being open with his sexuality, as well as accepting his life of leisure and wealth. Carino on the other hand is from much more humble origins, and is doing what she can do get by. She is a warm and caring person, but is also hiding many things from Adam and the audience, and as her steely walls are broken down, we see some of the struggles she has been hiding and the reasons for them.
They have a deeply naturalistic chemistry that immediately makes you buy into the characters and the way in which they bounce off each other is what makes the film work. Duplass has made a career in the indie film world by playing many men who are well-meaning but slightly quirky or abrasive, and Adam is no different here, but he plays the part so well. He really nails the moments of grief in particular, as he focuses on the confusion you can occasionally feel in those few moments after waking up, before it dawns on you again that your loved one is no longer there.
As for Morales, she is an incredibly talented and often underappreciated actress, who is able to effortlessly mix humour and sadness here to create a deeply sympathetic and yet well-rounded character. There is a magic in Carino’s smile that not only endears Adam to her, but also the audience, and it is the inherent warmth that radiates off Morales that really allows for the emotional punch when her story takes a more serious and upsetting turn.
There is an undeniable chemistry between the pair, with repeated flickers of sexual energy too, but that is never really addressed and left for the audience to decide where it will go. It is the friendship that is key, the ability to find someone during the most difficult of times who you can truly rely on, and who can bring the best out of you, in the worst circumstances. Not bring out levels of productivity or achievement, but simply bring out the real you, make you happiness and inner personality shine, even in the darkest of moments.
Duplass and Morales co-wrote the film together, and their individual voices and experiences merge together well to create a fresh and authentic script. The dialogue never strays into melodrama and always feels exactly like something a real person would say, and the story moves slowly and thoughtfully, whilst also featuring some really shocking and devastating twists along the way, leading up to a dramatic and moving finale.
In this year more than ever, where everyone has been confronted with their own level of grief and loneliness, this film will have a real resonance. Morales and Duplass manage to authentically and touchingly tell a story of human connection against all odds, and that is exactly what we need to see right now.