Familiarity surrounds Language Lessons, an 80-minute examination of a friendship between a Spanish teacher and her student. Natalie Morales, in her directorial debut, comes with an air of TV-sitcom understanding, having supporting roles on Parks & Recreation and Dead to Me over the last half-decade. Mark Duplass, who co-wrote the script with Morales, plays Adam, a man whose husband got him 100 Spanish lessons with Cariño (Morales) as a birthday gag. Filmed through Facetime/Zoom sessions between the two, Language Lessons forces you to watch two people forging a bond through a screen, an all-too-common narrative of our lives over the last year.
The film never mentions a pandemic or any sort of world-altering event, instead creating distance between Cariño and Adam simply through location, as she lives in Costa Rica and he resides in a clearly-expensive home with his husband, Will, in Oakland. Their first lesson is a cheerful experience, as Cariño follows Adam through his morning routine, hopping back and forth between the pool and jacuzzi. He already has some fluency in the language, but just hopes to become more conversational, more comfortable. He calls himself pregnant on accident. She laughs, and gives him homework, telling him to learn the Spanish word for “cliffhanger.”
And that’s an obvious tip by Duplass and Morales once you’ve seen their following lesson, which finds Adam lying on his bed in a heap. He tells her that Will died last night, getting struck by a car in the middle of the night while on a run. Emotional whiplash would be undercutting the immediate shock that plasters across Cariño’s face. She helps him through that moment, continuing their lesson after he describes what happened to his late husband in Spanish, attempting to find the words for his emotions in a foreign language. It’s a lofty, odd idea: how do we grapple with our feelings if we don’t know the right words, especially when talking to a relative stranger? Adam chooses to speak in his second language, one that feels shaky and somewhat unknown, a pointed parallel to his now-uncertain life.
Language Lessons works because of the chemistry between Morales and Duplass, who have worked together on the Duplass brothers HBO anthology series Room 104. Like many Duplass-produced films, his brother Jay co-produced this SXSW film, it doesn’t pull any emotional punches, despite the physical separation of its two leads. Reminiscent of their other films in terms of its minor scale, like Blue Jay and Paddleton, the film becomes Morales’ vehicle during the second act, as more is revealed about her past and current living situation. She starts as a backboard for a man with a heavy heart and expands into a character with more nuances and specificities than Adam himself. It would be easy to foxhole her, and to the film’s credit, she remains only knowable to a certain degree. She’s both kind and bright, yet reserved and undeterred to tackle life on her own. Like him, she knows a level of tragedy, and she understands the pain of losing someone you love.
Morales won’t let the film falter, in front of and behind the camera. She’s assured, and the joint script allows both actors time to sit in silence, room to breathe deeply, and moments to explore the most human emotions in real time. Largely based on a single, heartbreaking event, their friendship struggles because they’ve already seen each other at times of raw pain. There was no lead-up and no groundwork, just a few laughs shared between a teacher and a student in different countries.
After watching the film, it becomes hard not to ponder a question: how close can you become to someone you’ve never met? Over the last year, many of us have lost jobs, started new jobs, ended relationships, fallen in love, and communicated, and worried, with our closest relatives, all through a screen. There’s a lack of warmth built into that screen, yet Language Lessons observes the opposite, radiating care and love in the face of a changing, often broken, virtual world. It’s not necessarily a discovery, but a reminder of the comfort that can be given by a stranger who, against all odds, understands you with a completeness that can fill your heart. For Adam, he needed Cariño, and at some point, she seems to need him, too.
Language Lessons never lags. It’s too focused on the emotional depth of its characters to produce tedium. And Morales’ directorial debut, a solid one in its simplicity, is willing to take a huge swing with its final scene. It scoops up the pieces of your heart, telling you that someone is willing to put everything back together.
This review is from the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.
Photo Credit: Jeremy Mackie