Written by Natalie Morales & Mark Duplass
Directed by Natalie Morales
Starring Natalie Morales, Mark Duplass, Desean Terry
The 2021 year in film has given us the unavoidable aftershocks of making movies during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic. During that time, some filmmakers created works over their computers.
Making a film in this manner is not to be seen as some sort of “Hail Mary” desperation during the 2020 lockdown. It exists as a need, in the hope to keep their art and careers flowing.
Most films directed in this manner have been made for the horror genre. However, this month brings us a small two-character slice of life that works well thanks to the two lead performances.
Directed by Natalie Morales and written by Morales and co-star Mark Duplass, “Language Lessons” uses computer screens to tell the story of a long-distance friendship.
Their film does not call out nor deal with the pandemic but exists in a time where online relationships are commonplace. It is the way we communicate now. For better or worse.
Adam (Duplass) receives Spanish lessons (one hundred of them, a serious long-term commitment!) as a gift from his husband (Desean Terry). His teacher, Cariño (Morales), named for her caring demeanor, lives in Costa Rica. She takes on the challenge of teaching Adam, who has a head start, as he already knows a bit of the language.
After Adam’s husband dies unexpectedly, Cariño soon becomes a friend and offers sincere emotional support. The two form a strong bond that breaks free from confinement of the miles between them.
The film’s real strength is in the performances of Morales and Duplass. The actors are perfect in the roles they created and manage to find a real chemistry despite doing the whole film over a series of web chats and phone calls.
There are relative human truths to be found in the two characters, as Adam speaks of his financial privilege (his husband was wealthy) with a bit of regret and shame, as Cariño does not live in the lap of luxury. It is interesting to see how the two people achieve insight into one another’s lives and different backgrounds even though it is all through their computers.
Adam and Cariño address their differences, assume, argue, and laugh as their friendship grows quickly (but not perfectly), yet blossoms organically.
Many things are explored between the two characters, but it can be said that the film’s depth comes from Duplass and Morales. The script does not take as deep an emotional dive as the actors do. It makes everything too literal, especially with the unnecessary breaking up of the drama into “lessons” presented in title cards featuring both Spanish and English such as “Immersion/Inmersión” and so on. It seems the filmmakers did not trust their audience to “get it”.
The final act also strikes a false note. There is an abrupt confrontation between Adam and Cariño that is too forced and makes it feel like the film wanted to dart to its final point. The moment steals the natural flow of the film’s first half.
That said, “Language Lessons” works as a character piece and a rare and refreshing male/female relationship film that is strictly plutonic.
Duplass has always been a good actor (including here) and is adventurous in his film choices. Morales shows talent as a filmmaker (as she did earlier this year with her warm comedy “Plan B”) and is a very good actress. Both actor’s performances here are real and without pretension. The two find the core humanity that occasionally eludes their screenplay.
Conversations over the internet have shaped the way we make new friends. Morales uses computer-conferencing to explore how people can still find a connection when it is not possible to meet in person. While physically apart, we are still face to face on our screens. We might not be in the same room but we are there with one another. We are there for one another.
As “Language Lessons” sweetly tells us, human connection is stronger than any border.
NR, 91 Minutes, Duplass Brothers Productions, Shout! Sudios