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SXSW 2021 Review: 'Language Lessons' speaks a universally sweet language

Natalie Morales' 'Language Lessons' is about virtual Spanish classes that take an unlikely turn as the student-teacher scenario explores newfound friendship.

There's lots to cover in 'Language Lessons.'
(Image: © SXSW)

Our Verdict

'Language Lessons' sincerely speaks a universal language of compassion, connections, and finding friendship in most unexpected places.

For

  • 💻 Natalie Morales strikes a noteworthy directorial debut.
  • 💻 Uses "screen life" rather well.
  • 💻 Mark Duplass doin' what he's known for.

Against

  • 💻 Limitations are noticeable in glimpses.
  • 💻 Reliance on dialogue will not sway everyone.
  • 💻 Tech authenticity (imperfections) might be too much for some.

Language Lessons is part of our SXSW 2021 coverage. You can find all of our reviews here.

The pleasantly platonic Language Lessons teaches us there’s a massive difference between movies that exploit our current pandemic and movies filmed under pandemic conditions. Natalie Morales collaborates with “Mumblecore” influencer Mark Duplass for a genuinely warm friendship drama about the bonds we can still secure even when restricted to digital windows. It’s undoubtedly a COVID-19 commentary, yet never mentions “Coronavirus” or “quarantine” because the best examples of “Pandemic Cinema” are the ones that don’t utter the word “pandemic.” Morales instead explores the awkwardness, glitches, and bantery tiptoes of formulating friendships solely online, reflecting those relatable humanistic signatures of the Duplass brothers’ earliest projects.

Duplass stars as Adam, who shuffles into his kitchen one morning to find Cariño (Natalie Morales)—unintroduced—staring at him through a video chat window. Adam’s husband, Will (Desean Terry), leaps from his hiding place for a surprise and informs Adam he’s just received 100 Spanish lessons with Cariño. The two begin conversational foundations, but early in their timeline, tragedy befalls Adam and alters their student-mentor relationship into something more intimate. Whether or not either is ready for the unlikely companionship is a different account, and one that Morales explores through her screen-life narrative.

To confirm, Language Lessons is “simply” Duplass and Morales speaking in primarily Spanish as their characters become increasingly, (un)comfortably close. It’s a cautious formula, and yet both performers navigate their digital confines with the character development we’ve seen them deliver priorly on repeat. Morales is quick to acknowledge the idiosyncrasies of virtual communication, whether immediate impressions are influenced by background views or barriers that only grant a one-dimensional entrance into someone’s universe. It’s a sweetened story of two souls intertwining when they need each other most and wholly authentic to socialization methods that are jarring but became many’s new lockdown normal.

Specifically, there’s much thought invested into the idea that anyone can easily manipulate and curate online communication. Adam is more forthcoming with his emotions, while Cariño seems more mission-oriented and nervous to expose herself too forwardly. One of Morales’ standout moments occurs when Cariño rings Adam at 2:30 AM on his birthday, after allergy meds and two beers, and unguards herself—influenced by her condition—after social media stalking Adam to investigate if he’s truthfully compassionate; a “real” person. For as inspiringly saccharine Language Lessons remains throughout its entirety, there’s still a message about the pitfalls of online-only relationships. Lesser, more irresponsible films wouldn’t acknowledge such hesitations, which speaks to the completeness of Morales’ cyber-cute feature debut.

It’s that “completeness” that defines the experience of Language Lessons. For cinematography, that means including fuzzy WiFi failures, sometimes blank screens with audio-only, and delays in footage replicating the most basic FaceTime frustrations. In terms of performances, Duplass and Morales exhibit unbreakable chemistry as highs, lows, and in-betweens become this cherishable rollercoaster that makes us feel less alone about inherent sloppiness that comes along with cosmic existence. Given the material, it might be odd to classify Language Lessons as “feel good”—but, frankly, that’s what the co-written screenplay understands most of all. How something can be traumatic, life-interrupting, and yet still lead to the feelings of release and trepidation and elation that bubble over during the film’s climatic exchanges.

At its core, Language Lessons is a template for future "screen life" character pieces that may be a bit unfair because of the talent involved. In no assertion is anyone to assume this level of charm and engagement would be easily replicable (small examples of limitations do exist), nor should other filmmakers believe as much. Natalie Morales’ directorial introduction is a low-key breakout in the way she’s able to unite with Mark Duplass and produce something this in-tune with a moment, yet creatively unrestricted. Even better, it’s effortlessly adorable and becomes this touching overture that uses characters from Oakland and Costa Rica to prove how distance means nothing where soulmates—romantic or otherwise—are concerned. As captivating as Morales’ beaming smile, as raw as Duplass’ puffy reddened eyes, and as fulfilling an embrace you could ask for from internet users without the physical ability even to hug one another.