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.
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.
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.