LFF 2021: Language Lessons – Friendship is just a video call away in this touching, heartfelt drama

It’s safe to say that since last year, we’ve all become pretty familiar with the sight of faces on a screen, many of us turning to applications like Zoom as a way to stay in touch when we couldn’t physically meet up during lockdown. As such, there’s something immediately appealing about the set-up of Language Lessons (2021), this dramatic two-hander captured entirely through the use of video calls and messages – a method that allowed writer-director Natalie Morales to safely shoot this during the pandemic. Yet rather than restricting the story, this digital setting adds a layer of realism that makes this truly enchanting, Morales pulling us in to these characters’ lives while also exploring ideas around love, friendship, and how we all crave human connection during difficult times.

Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass in Language Lessons...
Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass in Language Lessons…

Spanish teacher Cariño (Morales) and her student Adam (Mark Duplass) seem far from connected when they meet though, their first video conversation full of pleasantries yet clearly strained, Cariño feeling like an intruder in this man’s perfect, rich life, particularly when he’s reluctant to break his strict morning routine to speak to her. The fact that Adam’s husband (Desean Terry) gifted him the lessons without his knowledge makes things even more awkward, Cariño realising how redundant her job actually is when she hears Adam speaking fluent Spanish. As first impressions go, it’s not a great start. But when an unexpected turn of events adds a new gravity to their video calls, Cariño and Adam are given a reason to stay in touch, both of them slowly opening up to each other and gaining something more important from their weekly lessons than advanced language skills.

To say anything else about the plot would really spoil the joy of watching Language Lessons for the first time though. Indeed, the reason this works so well is because we’re never quite sure where it’s heading, Morales and co-writer Duplass cleverly playing on our preconceptions of these characters, leading us down one path before suddenly taking the story in a totally different direction. In much the same way, Cariño and Adam also have to face up to the fact that their assumptions of each other are often completely wrong, the limits of their screens never showing the full picture. With the narrative keeping us on our toes at every turn, we’re hooked throughout, the emotional reveals hitting us hard as the characters struggle to cope with the problems life throws at them. Yet there’s a brilliantly perceptive humour to Morales and Duplass’ writing that ensures this is delicately balanced between light and dark, Cariño and Adam still eager to laugh along with each other and share in the good times as well as the bad. Take a sequence in which they pull increasingly ridiculous faces in their video messages, both of them thankful for a funny distraction in amongst everything going on. It’s little touches like this that make Morales’ film truly special, their bond growing and changing before our eyes in a very organic, heartwarming way.

Cariño (Natalie Morales) and Adam (Mark Duplass) get to know each other...
Cariño (Natalie Morales) and Adam (Mark Duplass) get to know each other…

Alongside the superb script, Morales and Duplass have a wonderful, natural chemistry that really sells this relationship, the screens they use never hindering their performances. Watching them handle their improv-like dialogue is equally as captivating, the pair easily riffing off each other as their characters chat warmly about something they realise they have in common, or argue over an issue they disagree on (a regular occurrence). Their excellent portrayals also add layers to the story that might not have been there otherwise, both showing the very different ways Cariño and Adam are coping with what’s going on. Duplass is heartbreaking throughout, switching from easy-going, over-enthusiastic charmer to emotional wreck at the drop of a hat. Yet Morales’ is particularly incredible, her performance hinting at a wealth of hidden secrets just beyond Cariño’s laptop screen, her evasive answers and tight, awkward smile often shutting down a conversation before it has even begun. One brilliant moment that highlights this is when she calls Adam late one night after a few too many drinks, the walls she always keeps up suddenly gone as she plays a guitar and sings to him. It’s rather telling that the next day she has to record several video messages to try and explain her behaviour, so worried is she that she’s finally let someone into her carefully guarded life.

While Language Lessons is a delightful, tender film, the ending sadly lets it down, the plot points tied together a little too quickly and easily to be truly satisfying. Still, this can be forgiven when the rest is so wonderful, Morales and Duplass making us thoroughly enjoy the company of Cariño and Adam whether they’re bickering, oversharing, or simply chatting about the best way to sing ‘Happy Birthday’. With a powerful central message about having the courage to reach out to others, this beautiful, compelling drama will stay with you for a long time, and also proves Morales as a talent to watch both behind and on screen.

Koko-di Koko-da – If you go down to the woods today…

With its creepy woodland setting, sinister music and eerie opening sequence (a mysterious troupe of characters stalking a forest), the world of Koko-di Koko-da is immediately unsettling, each passing moment seeming to foreshadow darker things to come. But even this can’t prepare us for the story that’s about to follow, this surreal Swedish thriller turning one couple’s ordinary camping trip into a nightmarish experience. Turns out this holiday really is going to be unforgettable.

Leif Edlund as Tobias in Koko-di Koko-da

The nightmare started a long time ago for Tobias (Leif Edlund) and Elin (Ylva Gallon) though, the shadowy woods the least of their worries when we first meet them. Still recovering after a tragic accident, the pair are constantly at each other’s throats, the simplest of disagreements turning into the biggest of arguments (like buying the wrong type of ice cream). Spending time together in close quarters certainly isn’t the wisest choice, but they’re willing to risk endless squabbling for the chance of reconnecting, despite the devastating past that can’t be erased. Marital bliss is the last thing on their minds once they arrive though, the couple finding themselves confronted again and again by a menacing group who they’re unable to escape from (in more ways than one). And before they know it, their peaceful retreat quickly descends into a terrifying ordeal of bizarre proportions.

It’s here that Koko-di Koko-da becomes so much more than a simple thriller in the woods, writer-director Johannes Nyholm unravelling his plot in an almost dreamlike way as Tobias and Elin try to make sense of what’s going on. Yet Nyholm keeps his narrative grounded in reality by exploring rich themes of grief and guilt throughout, using the situation the pair find themselves in as an allegory for the past they can’t leave behind. With the addition of that ominous woodland setting and caricature-like villains (Morad Baloo Khatchadorian plays a sort of giant while Peter Belli is the epitome of Rumpelstiltskin), Koko-di Koko-da is very much a fairytale coming to horrifying life, that moralistic plot familiar to us, yet given greater depth by that contemporary spin. Nyholm even uses shadow puppets at some points, the images of bunnies and a colourful rooster (whose melodic call is the ‘koko-di koko-da’ of the title) looking like they’ve been lifted straight from the pages of a children’s storybook. It’s an incredibly effective technique that is beautiful to watch, but also surprisingly disturbing, those innocent motifs reflecting the tragedy Tobias and Elin have faced, and warning them what might happen if they fail to confront their issues with each other.

The mysterious group stalk the woods...

And yet, there’s something about Nyholm’s approach that means his narrative isn’t as engaging as it should be, the latter half quickly losing all tension when Nyholm reveals what’s going to happen to the couple. While those fairytale tropes work well and are impressively woven into the main plot, other parts are weighed down by the film’s many ideas and themes, with every single moment seeming to be symbolic in some way – as if Nyholm is constantly nudging us to make sure we’re definitely getting it. The mix of drama and horror is also jarring, the emotional subtlety of the first scenes (which are genuinely heartbreaking) disappearing later on as things take a turn for the weird and terrifying. Having the two side-by-side makes us realise how much we miss the realism of the early parts – of a couple simply stuck in their own grief and unable to talk to each other about it. That’s certainly a lot more powerful than anything Tobias and Elin are about to face in those woods. Nyholm’s over reliance on violence in these later moments sadly only confirms that he knows this too, much of it feeling unnecessarily cruel (especially when the more horrific acts are so often aimed at Elin) and like a cheap way to keep us watching when his story becomes repetitive. 

While it’s undoubtedly flawed, there’s still a lot about Koko-di Koko-da to admire. The atmospheric imagery and immersive sound design are both wonderfully effective, Nyholm using each to pull us into the nightmare alongside Tobias and Elin. And Simon Ohlsson and Olof Cornéer’s eerie score is superb – a haunting soundtrack that you’ll want to revisit. But overall the narrative is lacking, the tension lost early on because of certain plot points, and the emotional realism pushed aside when the weirder elements are introduced. And, despite some great performances from Edlund and Gallon, we sadly just don’t care what happens to the characters, the ending leaving us cold and dissatisfied.

Koko-di Koko-da is released on September 7 exclusively on BFI Player, with a special introduction by film critic Mark Kermode. The film will also be released on Blu-ray and digital.

square-eyed-geek at the 2014 BFI London Film Festival

Although I’ve spent years on here discussing and reviewing films, I have a confession: square-eyed-geek has never been to a film festival. Well this year I thought I’d rectify that and not just with any old film festival, but with the 58th BFI London Film Festival. And I loved every minute of it.

The 58th BFI London Film Festival

The first thing I noticed was the atmosphere. Exciting and almost electric, it was great to be in the same place as so many other film lovers similar to myself. Of course the main plus of the festival was the chance to see films that wouldn’t be released for months down the line, or that might never be released if they are unlucky enough to not get picked up for distribution. I would very much doubt that would be the case for any of the superb films I saw at the festival though.

Carol Morley’s The Falling (2014) was the first screening I went to, and what a film to start my trip down there. Morley’s second fiction feature (after her last film, the fabulous documentary Dreams of a Life (2011)) is set in an all-girls school that is suddenly hit by a mysterious fainting illness. Strange, ethereal and gripping it features perfect lead performances from Maisie Williams and the fabulous Florence Pugh in her first ever role.

One of the surprises of the festival for me was that a lot of the filmmakers were there to talk about their films after the screenings. Indeed, the LFF screening of The Falling was the world premiere of the film, so writer-director Carol Morley and the cast were all there for a Q and A after it was shown. It was great to hear Morley talk enthusiastically about the film and her writing process, as well as the film’s overarching idea and its potential meanings.

Maisie Williams and Florence Pugh in Carol Morley’s The Falling (2014)

Another female filmmaker in attendance was the brilliant director Susanne Bier who was at LFF to promote her two new films, A Second Chance (En chance til, 2014) and Serena (2014). I chose to see A Second Chance, a heartbreaking drama written by Bier’s regular film partner Anders Thomas Jensen, that packs many a devastating punch throughout and also has an ending that divided many viewers in the audience (not me though – I loved it).

Also continually hard-hitting was The Turning (2013), an Australian portmanteau film. Some of the shorts were more standout than others and some didn’t really work (‘Immunity’, ‘Reunion’ and ‘On Her Knees’ were all beautifully shot and superbly acted, but being so different in tone they interrupted the flow of the other stories). Highlights for me though were the shorts by David Wenham, Claire McCarthy, Anthony Lucas and Mia Wasikowska. The only downside of the film is that at 3 hours it is incredibly long and does tend to drag towards the end. Still that’s usually the case with portmanteau films.

As a big lover of all sorts of film genres though, I decided to mix it up and see as many different ones as I possibly could during my time at LFF. Horror came in the form of David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014) – a terrifying and tense film filled with jump scares (the man sitting next to me could barely stay in his seat) and with a central idea as old as the genre itself, yet played out in a refreshingly different way. It also has a great lead performance from Maika Monroe – one to definitely look out for after this and her stellar turn in The Guest (2014).

Angus Sampson in dark Australian comedy The Mule (2014)

My 3 festival highlights were also widely different from each other and spanned various genres. One was Eskil Vogt’s Blind (2014) – a daring look at one woman (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) who has suddenly lost her eyesight, and a twisted tale in which we are never sure what is reality and what is her own fantasy. Also a favourite for me was The Mule (2014), a dark Aussie comedy about one man who is coerced into becoming a drug mule and who inevitably ends up in big trouble. However the central concept of the story is disgustingly hilarious – far too hilarious to reveal in fact. Writer, director and all-round funny guy Angus Sampson (the human equivalent of a grizzly bear – but a cuddly one) was also in attendance to answer questions about the production and about his first major lead role in the film.

But my overall favourite film of the festival was definitely 10.000 Km (2014), a funny yet devastatingly sad drama about a couple’s long distance relationship that’s played out through the use of technology (Skype, Facebook, etc.). It also has two great and very realistic lead performances from David Verdaguer and the amazing Natalia Tena who was alongside director Carlos Marques-Marcet to discuss the film after the screening. 10.000 Km was also the film that hit me the hardest after seeing it and, along with The Mule, has stayed with me since watching it…both for very different reasons though.

Carlos Marques-Marcet’s 10.000 Km (2014)

Getting the chance to attend The London Film Festival is definitely one of my highlights of 2014. The only downside to it was that I didn’t get to stay longer and devour any more of the 248 films showing over the 12 days of the festival. Still, there’s always next year!…

Note: Full reviews of all the films mentioned still to come!