As the winner of the SXSW Narrative Spotlight Audience Award for 2021 and the feature directing debut of Natalie Morales, there was a lot of buzz for pandemic indie Language Lessons. Co-starring Mark Duplass, who also partnered with Morales in writing the script, the film is the latest example of the screenlife film genre, in which all the storytelling takes place via a computer, tablet, or smartphone screen. Given that the world is universally experiencing Zoom fatigue, Language Lessons is a surprisingly poignant, bittersweet, sometimes uncomfortable exploration of platonic love, and it shows the depth and breadth of the talent of these two actors, who are tasked with keeping both forward momentum and building an emotional connection with viewers for 90 minutes. It is entirely worthy of its accolades, but should also come with a trigger warning for those still actively struggling with the pain of loss.
Language Lessons centers on wealthy Oakland resident Adam (Duplass), whose husband gifts him 100 weekly Spanish lessons, and his teacher Cariño (Morales) with whom he begins his immersion classes via internet. At the start of only the second lesson, Adam reveals to Cariño that his husband was killed in an accident the night before. Interacting entirely via an online conferencing platform, Adam’s new trauma and Cariño’s reaction to it lead these two people, who have only just met, to form a powerful and complicated emotional bond.
The connection they forge, interestingly, happens while speaking in a mix of English and Spanish, which Adam is re-learning. It requires him to consider his words and process his language, and the very act of translation means that with each word, he must dive into himself to see what he means, and how he feels. When they both switch to English, it’s because the subject matter is too emotional or raw, to try to speak it in a language whose words they don’t both intimately understand.
The way in which Mark Duplass’s Adam expresses and attempts to process his grief suggests either Duplass himself has been through a significant loss, or he has done a lot of openhearted research. Adam talks about repeatedly waking up and having to remember, again, that his husband is dead. As someone who lost a sister to a car accident and has spoken with many others who have unexpectedly lost family members, I can tell you it’s something that absolutely happens. For the first month after my sister died, I would wake up feeling like something wasn’t quite right, and after a few seconds remember my sister was gone. It was like reliving her death over and over. That aspect of the film was very difficult to watch for me, and it’s likely a number of other people will find it hard to watch as well, but that doesn’t mean it should be avoided. There’s sadness, but there’s much joy in Language Lessons as well.
Mark Duplass says at the depth of the pandemic, many of his friends were artistically stymied or stuck, but his reaction to a world in crisis was a drive to create. Though he and Natalie were not yet close, he thought she might be feeling the same way. Says Natalie Morales about making a film during the pandemic, “When I get depressed is when I make stuff.” Mark had a vague idea based on his own experience of working online with a Spanish teacher, but what grew the story was the two of them separately constructing their characters. Morales explained, “We basically built the movie around these two people, instead of around a plot.”
As for directing, Morales had two films released that she helmed in quick succession with Language Lessons and Plan B. Plan B was a more traditional film, so as director she had been preparing for some time before it got delayed through COVID. Enter Language Lessons, which was hatched as an idea in the midst of lockdown and moved forward when all else was at a standstill. The production was filmed in the span of 4 weeks start to finish, and because of lockdown, she did her own lighting, set design, makeup, hair, and costuming. With Language Lessons, which Morales calls a platonic rom-com, she got to use Spanish, her first language, for the first time in film.
The film was largely built on improvisation from a thin outline. In reference to that, Morales refers to her love of and appreciation for Buster Keaton. She says he is quoted as saying, “If you have the beginning and end of a film, you can always figure out the middle.” She thought it a crazy way to approach working on a film, but they shot the end of Language Lessons first, and figured it out from there, which she says made the experience one of the most exciting and rewarding times in her career. Added Duplass, “We were falling in love with this movie as we were making it. You normally fall in love with a movie while you’re writing it, and like in any good marriage, you fall out of love, but rekindle it with the second draft. Creatively speaking, Natalie and I made this movie on our second date. As an artist I’ve been thinking more and more about that, the way we dove into the deep end without knowing what’s happening, like Buster Keaton. I think I want to do more and more of that to get that energy.”
Both the film’s subjects of grief and platonic love are particularly salient and timely in the current climate. So many people are losing loved ones to COVID, without the ability to say goodbye. Many of those who’ve been lost, die after having only been sick for only a few weeks. Watching Adam navigate his way through loss, and Duplass portraying the experience with such authenticity, should definitely feel cathartic for viewers who are in the early stages of grief. As to platonic love, in a friendship, there are so many pitfalls that may mean the end of the relationship, and it always has to be an active decision on both parts to stay friends. The pandemic has definitely put stress on friendships, especially ones in which differing politics are a factor, or styles of communication aren’t in sync. Also if either are not feeling supported in their challenges, if one is laid off or loses their job, and the other finds more success than ever, that too has the potential to end decades-long relationships. Language Lessons follows the ups and downs of a platonic relationship, from the choice one person makes of trusting the other, to pulling back out of fear, to risking a level of honesty that could lead to a severing of connection. Every viewer will recognize something of their own friendships in the journey Adam and Cariño take together.
While likely not the best movie you’ll see in 2021, Language Lessons really embodies the spirit of indie filmmaking, and uniquely captures both platonic love and the pain of grief in an honest, entertaining way.
4 out of 5 stars.