Writer/director Natalie Morales crafts one of the pandemic era’s most moving and effective odes to long-distanced intimacy.
Tired of pandemic movies and specials yet? That’s understandable since most of them have the same format, same comedic material to mine, and same thematic message of us all being in this together. Bottle episodes for our real-life bottle episode. Fortunately, actor-turned-filmmaker Natalie Morales has put together a near-exemplar of the form which will, with any luck, transcend this present moment in time.
Although Language Lessons may not directly mention the ongoing Covid pandemic, its story clearly mirrors the circumstances which led to its production. The two protagonists, tutor Cariño (Morales) and student Adam (Mark Duplass, who also co-wrote the film), are separated by continents and only talk to each other during the scheduled Spanish lessons or in little voice notes sent in the days between.
Theirs is ostensibly a professional relationship but one whose boundaries are quickly torn down when Adam suffers a devastating loss which, by nature of both his grief and a grief of Cariño’s own she is reluctant to share, ends up drawing them closer together through a co-dependency equal parts healthy and unhealthy.
This is where Morales’ assured direction, and the Zoom meeting conceit, really enhances the material. By nature of both characters having to talk directly into the camera at almost all times, often really close up so you can see every micro-expression crossing the actors’ faces (even in a minimised window), she’s able to craft moments of uncomfortable intimacy. The ways in which the characters admit their deepest feelings and fears, or else try to deflect and divert rather than open up, elevates potentially melodramatic writing into something emotionally raw. There’s little effort to make the film appear traditionally cinematic in a way that’s ultimately truer to the material. It feels almost voyeuristic to watch this on a laptop.
Despite working within these constraints, Language Lessons is quietly ambitious. It’s refreshing to see a film about a strictly platonic relationship between a man and a woman. Morales and Duplass also attempt to reckon with the gender, racial and class disparities and power imbalances within Adam and Cariño’s relationship, although those efforts are more messily handled.
Perhaps as a result of adhering to a conventional rom-com structure (although this really is not a comedy), as much as it wishes to interrogate Adam’s white privilege, the film ultimately has to play some of those tropes straight in order to reach its cathartic finale.
Language Lessons speaks to the current moment while also making bigger, more profound points about the healing power of shared grief amongst would-be strangers, and the valid connections we can make on the other end of our screens.
Published 19 Oct 2021
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