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Language Lessons: SXSW Film Review

Language Lessons is a poignant “platonic romcom” powered by two persuasive performances from Mark Duplass and Natalie Morales and a soulful script.

After spending over a year solely conversing with colleagues and classmates over Zoom, it feels safe to say that our ability to truly communicate and connect with other human beings has taken a bit of a tumble. It’s wonderful that we live in a time where technology can so convincingly approximate in-person gatherings and the like to assure that we aren’t all entirely cut off from civilization whilst contending with the coronavirus pandemic, but there’s still a distance inherent in these digital dialogues, and it can often make one feel quite isolated as a result. The possibility of actually relating to another human being in spite of all the communicative struggles brought on by our current strife seems like a pipe dream, but it’s one we all still secretly pine for nonetheless, and that’s what makes Natalie Morales’ Language Lessons as miraculously moving and mesmerizing as it is – a movie that offers hope that we can still form meaningful bonds with others from afar during this traumatic time if we are willing to open ourselves up and refuse to let lockdowns lead to our relational ruination.

Shot entirely through Zoom screens, Language Lessons begins as a man named Will (Desean Terry, of Apple TV+’s The Morning Show) purchases two years’ worth of Monday-morning Spanish classes with the charismatic Cariño (Natalie Morales, of NBC’s Parks and Recreation and The Little Things) as a surprise for his husband Adam (Mark Duplass, of Bombshell and Creep). As a self-professed “creature of habit,” Adam is initially apprehensive of how these unexpected meetings will upend his strictly scheduled morning routine; thankfully, Cariño proves adaptable, and the two cultivate a compelling camaraderie as they bilingually chat about all sorts of topics, from trivial thoughts to somber subject matter. Despite his initial lack of interest in the Spanish lessons, Adam comes to enjoy Cariño’s company. And then, in the blink of an eye, tragedy strikes, leaving Adam more despondent and disoriented than ever before – and in need of far more assistance than the average Spanish teacher offers.

Recognizing Adam’s anguish, Cariño steps up to the plate to provide solace in Adam’s time of need, evolving from a teacher into a therapist of sorts. As emotional and relational boundaries are blurred, Adam and Cariño’s lives become more intertwined than either could have ever imagined, with Adam in particular relying almost solely on the comfort Cariño contributes to their conversations, especially when he has no one else to turn to. However, Cariño subsequently struggles with the weight of these responsibilities, feeling as if her own life is put on hold to handle Adam’s hurting, and wondering if she’s in over her head by endeavoring to be more than a mere educator. Over the course of the ups and downs of their language lessons, both Adam and Cariño will be forever altered by these encounters, with each coming to comprehend the true complexity of human connection.

loud and clear reviews Language Lessons 2021 film
Language Lessons (Shout! Studios)

Morales is a triple threat in Language Lessons, starring in, directing, and co-writing this insightful indie, and as a result, the film feels like her holistic vision through and through, and she is able to imbue the project with a distinctive personality thanks to this complete and compassionate control. Above all else, her script – which Duplass also contributed to – is the true star here, radiating a real-world relatability and rarely, if ever, straining credulity, even as the story seems to move into a bit of melodrama in the third act (before rightfully reorienting itself). Almost single line of dialogue is strikingly sincere and free of frivolity, grounding this two-hander in genuineness instead of giving into tacky, overwritten theatrics. Thus, as Adam and Cariño’s bond blossoms, this progression is palpably plausible as opposed to feeling “phony” – Duplass and Morales put in the work to sketch out truthful trajectories for these characters, and the execution is engrossing.

Duplass maintains much of his endearing “everyman” charm in the role of Adam, but there’s an additional emotional exposure here that truly elevates his performance as he creates a complicated and confused individual to inhabit and animate for us in the audience. Initially appearing as no more than another affluent and erratic Californian eccentric luxuriating in his lavish estate (which should be serious eye-candy for Architectural Digest devotees), this façade falls pretty soon into the first act, and Duplass takes the rest of the time to explore all the intricacies of Adam’s identity. His queerness is wholly examined but never exaggerated, allowing both his past sexuality-related strife and present passion for Will to resonate authentically rather than feeling like artificial “add-ons” to the story. Similarly, the grief that follows his personal tragedy is as temperamental as one would expect, with Duplass making each mood swing seem starkly honest instead of hokey. There’s a lot to cover with this character, but Duplass walks the tonal tightrope wonderfully.

Likewise, Morales is masterfully magical as Duplass’s scene/Zoom partner for these 90 minutes in what is an equally tricky part to tackle. At first, Cariño is a lively ray of light in Adam’s life, and her cheeriness is contagious – Morales toes the line between “sweet” and “sardonic” splendidly. And yet, as the two grow closer and closer, it’s clear that Cariño becomes somewhat skeptical of this fast friendship, both due to her perceived inability to provide support for Adam and because of her own unwillingness to open up to others. Morales embodies these mixed emotions with stunning skillfulness, and she compellingly contrasts with the transparent Mark by keeping so many of her concerns close to her chest, causing us to always question what she’ll say or do next. Morales’ Cariño actively rebels against being a mere “manic pixie dream girl” sent to solve all of Adam’s problems, but she also comes to learn that she can simultaneously shun this idealization and still form an attachment with Adam, freeing herself of the fears of being seen as a “savior” and later letting a loved one down. It’s such a shrewdly scripted character arc, but it’s because of Morales’ persuasive performance that it enraptures us so effortlessly.

Though small in scope and scale, Language Lessons’ soulfulness is staggering, and its universal relatability stretches far beyond the confines of a Zoom screen. Thanks to absorbing acting from Duplass and Morales and a stripped-down, stirring script, the film transforms into a testament to the strength of the human spirit and an optimistic ode to the capability of human communication and connection to cure all ills – and really, isn’t that exactly what we need to see right now?

Language Lessons premiered at SXSW Online on March 17, 2021. The film will open in select US theaters on September 10, 2021.

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