MOVIE OF THE WEEK September 10, 2021: LANGUAGE LESSONS

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After the last year and a half, it would be understandable if someone read the quick summary of Natalie Morales’ Language Lessons — two very different people bond through a series of online chats and messages — and thought “A Zoom movie? No way!” But this intimate, heartfelt dramedy is so much more than that. It’s a carefully observed character study about friendship, privilege, and the power of a genuine connection, whether it’s virtual or IRL.

The movie opens with Adam (Mark Duplass, who co-wrote the film with Morales) being surprised by his husband Will’s birthday gift: a year’s worth of live online Spanish lessons with Carino (Morales). The two spend the first lesson just talking, with Adam breaking out his rusty Espanol to tell Carino some of the details of his life with Will, who runs a successful dance company. They live in a big house in Oakland, swim in their pool, do yoga; very much a “nice work if you can get it” situation. It’s clear that Carino’s own circumstances in Costa Rica are quite different, but she clearly enjoys speaking with Adam, and, right from the start, they establish a friendly, bantering connection.

That makes it all the more startling when (spoiler alert!) Carino logs on for Adam’s second lesson and finds him despondent and, it turns out, in shock: Will has unexpectedly died, and Adam has no idea what to do. He clings to Carino as a lifeline to normalcy — and because it seems he doesn’t have too many other people close to him. She’s quick to support him in his grief but later draws back when things get too personal on her end. She builds a wall around herself, but it’s not without its flaws, and Adam is a very persistent friend. They argue/she calls him out on making assumptions about her and her life; they reconnect; she pushes him away again; etc.

The fact that all of this plays out over a computer screen becomes a non-issue very quickly. If anything, it makes Language Lessons‘ glimpse into its characters’ lives feel even more intimate. Because Morales and Duplass created two vivid, well-developed people in Adam and Carino — and wrote authentic dialogue for them with real emotional weight — audiences will be fully invested in them and their friendship. — Betsy Bozdech

Team #MOTW’s comments:

Marilyn Ferdinand Over the last 17 months, most of us have had a close encounter with the Zoom app, with decidedly mixed results. You may not be eager to watch a film that takes place entirely on Zoom, but, trust me, these are calls you’ll be very happy to take. Adam (Mark Duplass) has been given 100 weekly Spanish lessons with Cariño (Natalie Morales), who lives in Costa Rica and can only teach him via Zoom. The opening of the film is perhaps the most genuinely human meet-cute you’re likely to see in a movie, setting us up perfectly for the touching friendship that grows between pupil and teacher as dark circumstances enter each of their lives. Morales, who directed the film and cowrote it with Duplass, understands the nuances of communicating in two languages and was clever enough to see the potential, both cinematic and human, of Zoom in the modern age. This film is a real charmer.

Sherin Nicole Chapter by chapter, one Spanish lesson and one life lesson at a time, Natalie Morales’ newest film reveals the uncertain complexities of falling in love with a new friend when everything else is falling apart. Co-written and co-starring Morales and Mark Duplass, Language Lessons is shot in the same video meetings many of us have spent more than a year in, but it is through distance that this story finds a hesitant intimacy, and it is their lack of touch that assures us these two awkward people have found a different kind of soul mate. Language Lessons is a lovely film, snappily written, candid, and softly endearing.

Leslie Combemale There’s a lot of buzz for pandemic indie Language Lessons. Co-starring Mark Duplass, who partnered with director Natalie 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. Read full review.

Susan Wloszczyna: At a time when so much of our country is filled with divisive politics and ugly, stupid and false rhetoric while selfish anti-vaxers and anti-maskers refuse to do the right thing, here comes along a charming balm of a two-hander in the form of director Natalie Morales’s Language Lessons, which she wrote with her co-star, Mark Duplass. It provides a perfect oasis of sorts from all the pain and agony of the news headlines of late. It also might be the best Zoom meeting you will ever experience as well. Read full review.

Jennifer Merin Language Lessons is a pandemic-inspired zoom-tech two-character, two-location, two-screen dramedy that’s thoroughly refreshing, emotionally engaging and, ultimately, utterly charming. Directed by Natalie Morales (who also stars and co-wrote the project with co-star Mark Duplass), the film follows the burgeoning understanding and growing friendship between Carino, a for-hire internet Spanish language teacher and her client, Adam, an affluent and bored white guy who has his regular daily routine and some social and emotional issues. Read full review.

Pam Grady: The gift of Spanish lessons, meant as a fun birthday surprise from a man to his husband ends up being so much more as personal events in both the student’s and teacher’s lives lead them to places not covered by any curriculum. A trifle bemused by his partner’s present, Oakland, CA-based Adam (Mark Duplass) nevertheless falls into easy rapport with Cariño (Natalie Morales) video chatting from Costa Rica. When Adam’s well-ordered life takes a dark turn, it is to this near stranger that he turns to for solace, the two growing closer as the weeks wear on. A film conceived of and produced during 2020’s COVID lockdowns, co-screenwriters Duplass and Morales evince an easy, warm chemistry in a film that explores manifestations of grief and trauma while limning the unexpected friendship that springs up between these two disparate people. Directing her impressive first feature and one with extreme technical limitations imposed by the geographic separation of its performers, Morales makes a virtue out of the Zoom video meeting platform as she transforms physical isolation into cyberspace intimacy and a series of chats into a resonant relationship.

Loren King Talk about making lemonade from lemons. The always interesting actors Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass team for a touching two character movie that unfolds almost entirely over FaceTime or Skype. No doubt conceived and shot during the pandemic lockdown, Morales’s directing debut starts out as a creative curiosity about two very different people in two different time zones trying to communicate despite a language barrier. But then it deepens. The film nails the paradox of social media: sure, it’s a miracle of modern technology that the internet facilitates such easy connection across time and space. But there are the inevitable glitches, the awkward attempts at “normal” conversation, the obvious limits to a relationship based entirely on a screen. Morales and Duplass beautifully convey the missteps and misunderstandings as their friendship develops and they turn this deceptively simple film into something much more: an offbeat love story about the universal language of caring and connection.

Nell Minow: Lessons in Spanish are a well-chosen metaphor to explore the frustrations, fears, and longings for connection. Duplass and Morales give performances of courageous intimacy that bring us into their worlds and show us that two people talking is more than enough to create characters and stories that engage us completely.

Sandie Angulo Chen: Actor-writer-director Natalie Morales and co-writer/star Mark Duplass’ collaboration in this video-chat-based relationship drama is a revelation of how friendships begin and flourish, sometimes under the most unlikely circumstances. Morales plays Cariño, a Spanish teacher who has been hired to teach her client Will’s husband Adam (Duplass) for 100 weekly virtual lessons. What starts off as a comically awkward first lesson turns into a surreal and sad second lesson, when Adam reveals that Will died unexpectedly and he’s in shock and unsure what to do. The two bond quickly and soon their lessons are more video confessionals (on Adam’s part), as Cariño navigates how much of herself to share (or if she should just consider listening to Adam without reciprocating any confidences). The two actors (despite Duplass’ stilted Spanish skills) share a believable chemistry, and as filmmakers and performers they’ve crafted a unique and touching story that’s particularly resonant in the Covid era.

Liz Whittemore Unique, shocking, insightful, complex, beautiful; these are a few words that describe Language Lessons. Two strangers become connected through chance and a gift of Spanish lessons. Cariño and Adam communicate through zoom, voicemail, and genuine human connection. Mark Duplass plays Adam. You’re instantly enamored with his performance. Natalie Morales is charming, honest, funny, and relatable. Their chemistry is the stuff of movie magic. I would love to see them paired up again and again. The script completely works around the entire subject of Covid. This could be happening at any point in time, and that’s nice to feel right now. Ultimately, this screenplay is about the human spirit without a filter. Written by Morales and Duplass, and directed by Morales, the film is profound and revealing. It will touch you in ways you won’t expect. Language Lessons is a story that translates universally.

Cate Marquis Language Lessons begins with a surprise, when Adam (Mark Duplass) discovers he is getting Spanish lessons via Zoom as a surprise present by his playful husband Will (Desean Terry), who also did not let the Spanish teacher, Carino (Natalie Morales), know it was a surprise. Adam and Carino have very different lives – she’s a financially struggling single woman in Costa Rica and he’s a well-off gay man in Oakland, California, yet they quickly hit it off. When tragedy strikes, an unexpected bond is formed between them. Natalie Morales directs this surprising charmer where the characters interact only via Zoom yet the two actors build such well-drawn, appealing characters and the script is so well written that, despite the Zoom call format and two languages, we can’t help but be drawn in and have our heartstrings tugged.

FILM DETAILS:

Title: Language Lessons

Director: Natalie Morales

Release Date: September 10, 2021

Running Time: 91 minutes

Language: English, Spanish with subtitles

Screenwriters: Natalie Morales, Mark Duplass

Distribution Company: Shout Factory

Official Website

AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).