Synopsis: Adam (Mark Duplass) is an enthusiastic Spanish speaker but when his husband, Will (Desean Terry), buys him 100 video-call Spanish lessons, he’s uncertain about whether he’ll be able to find the time to study. However, when Will is tragically killed in an accident, Adam’s Spanish tutor, Cariño (Natalie Morales), becomes an unexpected lifeline. The two become fast friends and are surprised by their co-dependency, but they’re both left wondering how well do they know one another, in this charming two-hander.
Not Another Pandemic Movie
Language Lessons (Morales, 2021) is unmistakably a product of its time; it’s a platonic Rom-Com that takes place almost exclusively across video calls. It’s clearly a film shot during the pandemic, but it cleverly skirts all mention of it, which should give the film more longevity i.e. it won’t be remembered for being just another ‘Zoom movie’. Also, its central conceit about two people only interacting online is believable.
This is Natalie Morales’ directorial debut as a feature filmmaker, but before this, she directed TV episodes and shorts. Morales is a deft first-time director, especially given the creation of this during the pandemic. Morales also plays the Spanish teacher, Cariño, and she co-wrote the film’s script alongside her co-star, Mark Duplass. Language Lessons is executively produced by the Duplass brothers and that will be evident to anyone that has seen the often overlooked, two-hander gem, Blue Jay (Lehmann, 2016), which also starred Duplass.
A two-hander is a term for a film with just two main characters, and generally, those characters will be of equal importance to the film’s narrative. A common trope of the two-hander is that characters will display differences in their backgrounds, cultures or experiences. Typically, those differences present a challenge and thus an obstacle for the characters to overcome. Unsurprisingly, the term has its origins in theatre. There are many notable examples and a few of my favourites are; Hell in the Pacific (Boorman, 1958), Before Sunrise (Linklater, 1995) and of course, Blue Jay.
Mark Duplass was sensational opposite Sarah Paulson in Alex Lehman’s Blue Jay, so Morales was exceptionally wise and fortunate to partner with him on Language Lessons. It’s a partnership that pays off handsomely, in what is a disarmingly charming and heartfelt film.
Duplass is clearly confident in creating a collaborative performance, which is essential to the success of any two-hander. Naturally, this film would be the perfect accompanying partner in a double-bill featuring Blue Jay. However, both Morales and Duplass deserve high praise for Language Lessons due to the chemistry that they both create. Their chemistry is nothing short of exceptional, especially given that their relationship is almost entirely depicted via phones, tablets and laptops.
Structure and Relationships
Given the film’s central conceit, Morales wisely utilises intertitles throughout to help structure the film and create a discernible sense of time passing. These intertitles – or chapters – are cleverly disguised as Spanish lessons. For example, one intertitle refers to Immersion and Inmersión.
Adam and Cariño bond following the death of Will. In an act of kindness, Cariño offers Adam a distraction and he decides that continuing his Spanish lessons will likely help him to better manage his grief. The two start by conducting their weekly lessons, but they soon establish an emotional bond and start talking more frequently – sending each other voice and video messages.
Ultimately, given that Adam and Cariño live in different countries, there comes a moment where both characters question how well do they know one another. This leads to them examining their connection, which culminates in a turning point; are they friends, or are they just tutor and student? If the relationship is to continue, then it will require a leap of faith…
Conclusion: Like any two-hander, Language Lessons lives and dies by the chemistry between its two actors, the script and direction. Fortunately, all three elements are beautifully synchronised. It’s a Rom-Com with a platonic central relationship, which is frequently funny, heartwarming and tear-inducing. Language Lessons celebrates kindness, humanity and trust, so given the number of us that have had to deal with loneliness and grief in the last 18 months, it’s an easy film to recommend. Finally, Language Lessons is a brilliant showcase, not just for Duplass, but for the incredibly talented, Natalie Morales – here she confidently demonstrates her skill for writing, directing and acting. Morales is definitely somebody to watch.
- Language Lessons (Morales, 2021) was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival, which runs until 17th October. A release date for Language Lessons is to be announced.
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