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.

Tammy – Melissa McCarthy’s new comedy has a hidden heart of gold, but little else

While women have long been a presence in comedy films, it seems that only recently people have actually been recognising their efforts in the genre, both as actors and as filmmakers. Love it or hate it, you could argue that American comedy Bridesmaids (2011) started this. A comedy with a predominantly female cast and written by women (Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo), it made it big at the box office and garnered huge critical acclaim, mostly from people who were almost surprised at the fact that (shock horror) women could do funny. Since then there seems to have been a slow, steady increase in the number of women being recognised as comedy filmmakers and in mainstream comedy roles. Films such as In A World… (2013), The Heat (2013) and Obvious Child (2014) are just a few examples of female-fronted comedies that are all either written by, directed or starring women and that all stand out among the more male-dominated comedies of recent years. More importantly though, the female roles in these films aren’t simply there just for comedic effect – these roles drive the plot of the film. One of the most bankable female comedy stars of the moment, Melissa McCarthy, has only ever been given a few of these sorts of lead comedy roles in her career, most recently in The Heat. Yet now McCarthy is behind the wheel of her own vehicle called Tammy (2014), another female-driven comedy that is also hoping to continue the trend and make it big in a market still saturated with male ‘Bromance’ films.

Tammy (2014) – Tammy (Melissa McCarthy) and her Grandmother (Susan Sarandon)

Few out there are as funny as Melissa McCarthy, male or female. Many could never match her aptitude for comedy or the boldness she brings to her roles. Again this shines through in Tammy, McCarthy expertly playing the outlandish, down-on-her-luck woman who loses her car, job and husband all in the space of a day. Fed up with her life Tammy packs her things and embarks on a spontaneous road trip with her bored Grandmother (Susan Sarandon), who insists on coming along for the ride as well. Soon the two of them are travelling across the country to get away from it all, Tammy hoping to make a fresh start while all the time trying to control her rowdy Grandmother. Sounds like the usual comedy road trip recipe, right?

Well those expecting that sort of film will be surprised by Tammy, either pleasantly or otherwise. Sure, the slapstick jokes still remain alongside the usual sort of big, crude jokes seen in many a mainstream comedy film. But many will be surprised to learn that Tammy is also a sweet, straight drama about one woman trying to get over the bumps in her life and find her way again. The result is a pleasing little indie comedy drama that makes a change from the usual comedic fare. However this is also one of the main problems with the film. No consistency in the tone means it’s an uneasy watch in which it sometimes feels the film doesn’t really know what it wants to be, or more accurately that director and co-writer Ben Falcone and co-writer McCarthy don’t really know what they want it to be.

Tammy meets Bobby (Mark Duplass) on the road...

Of course, that’s not to say that mixing big laughs and sentiment doesn’t work in comedy films. Indeed the aforementioned Bridesmaids and In A World… both had sentiment by the bucket-load. And if you watch any of Judd Apatow’s work you’re always hit with emotional, realistic moments as well as the laughter. Yet with Tammy the balance doesn’t work because it switches between the two so dramatically. The boisterous, funny side takes over with a silly slapstick joke and then immediately after throws us back into a touching, heartfelt moment, making these serious parts too unbelievable and hard to connect with. Of course this also hasn’t been helped by the film’s marketing campaign which tried to push it as the new Due Date (2010) or even The Hangover (2009). Still kudos to Melissa McCarthy and her husband Ben Falcone for trying to mix the genres.

Praise should also be given for the fact that Tammy features a predominantly female cast, and a pretty damn fine one too. We get cameos from the brilliant Kathy Bates and the fabulous Sandra Oh. The amazing Allison Janney has a brief role as Tammy’s mother. And Susan Sarandon is superb as the Grandmother, if a strange choice when she has to wear so much make-up and prosthetics to age her. Her presence makes for a clever Thelma & Louise (1991) road trip nod, which I’m guessing was part of the reason for casting her. Sarandon and McCarthy, who spend most of their time together onscreen, make for a great and funny pair as well, the two brilliantly playing off one another in poignant and touching scenes. Indeed it is great to see McCarthy showing her untapped dramatic skills alongside her usual comedy attributes in a deserving lead role.

Yet for all its mould-breaking efforts within the comedy genre, Tammy just isn’t that compelling a watch. The story drags in parts and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere for most of the running time. During one scene involving a robbery, Tammy seems to be announcing that it’s about to head somewhere new and exciting. But even that is an anti-climax – a statement that sums up the rest of the film really.

Tammy and her Grandma find themselves in trouble...

Unexpected in the extreme, some will be happy to realise that Tammy is much more than the usual mainstream comedy. Others, mostly those wanting to see that sort of film, will hate this. The mixture of laughs and drama might work in other comedies, but here McCarthy and Falcone just don’t get the balance right and more often than not Tammy feels confused and falls flat. Still there are few other filmmakers making such bold moves in comedy right now, especially in terms of using a predominately female cast. And seeing McCarthy stretch her dramatic muscles in a lead role that is something other than the crude characters we are used to seeing her play is a joy to behold. Yet it really is a huge shame to say that despite all of these positives, overall Tammy ends up being incredibly disappointing.

Jeff, Who Lives At Home

Jeff (Jason Segel) is an unemployed slacker who still lives in the basement of his Mum’s house (hence the title Jeff, Who Lives At Home). He believes in the interconnectedness of everything in the universe and that everything happens for a reason, mostly because of the film Signs. After a phone call from a wrong number with a person asking for ‘Kevin’, Jeff is lead on a journey throughout the day travelling from one significant event to another, driven by his obsession to find out what this call meant and where it is destined to lead him. It can’t have been a coincidence, can it? On the way he meets his brother Pat (Ed Helms) who starts out on his own quest to find out if his wife (Judy Greer) is cheating on him after they both see her out with another man. What follows is a whimsical, smart, and sometimes very funny story as the two brothers follow the ‘signs’, and as they try to discover if Jeff’s theory about destiny is true.

The idea of this film taking place in one day is clever, although it might frustrate people looking for something more than a light-hearted look at fate and the interconnectedness of everything. The real charm of the film lies in the chemistry between Jason Segel and Ed Helms. They work well together and both bring the laughs as the feuding brothers. Segel is the main standout, looking and sounding completely different than he did in The Muppets (and looking like he’s eaten some of the Muppets) – he’s sluggish and slackerish while still having a sense of childish hope in everything he does. Ed Helms is great too as Pat – outlandishly blokeish at times (like when he’s driving his flashy new car) but also vulnerable and hurt as he becomes desperate to uncover the truth about his wife’s potential affair.

Susan Sarandon is also great as the brother’s mother who is also trying to discover if there is more to life when she finds out she has a secret admirer at work. One problem with the film though is that the mother’s subplot tends to get lost and feels a little jarring alongside the main story of the two brothers. Focusing on just the brothers might have been better.

However, Jeff, Who Lives At Home is a sweet indie film from the Duplass brothers which is funny and intelligent, and the ending is real life affirming stuff. But some people might be put off by the kookiness of it and yearn for something a little bit more. And while it’s not as good as their brilliant film Cyrus, it’s still definitely worth a watch, if only to see the brilliant Segel and Helms play off each other.