Language Lessons 2021 - Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass

Language Lessons (2021) Review – SXSW 2021

Directed by Natalie Morales, Language Lessons (2021) reflects on the everyday pandemic life in a cute, yet slightly uninventive way. You will, however, stay for the chemistry of its lone stars – Mark Duplass and the director herself.

After we’ve been shut inside our homes for months, the new reality hasn’t been particularly an easy one to handle.

Reports on deteriorating mental health pop up like mushrooms. And with our lives moving to online dimensions so unexpectedly, it’s now clear that on-screen conferences can’t replace real-life meetings.

In Language Lessons (2021), Natalie Morales tells a story of a highly relatable case study of how human relationships change when deprived of the offline experience. Adam (Mark Duplass) lives alone in a posh mansion, and experiences the pandemic through the lenses of the well-situated, happily-married gay man. To keep his better half entertained, Adam’s boyfriend hires Cariño (Natalie Morales) – a Spanish tutor based in Costa Rica, who helps Adam dust off his linguistic memory.

As you may suspect, Cariño isn’t too keen on being a surprise gift for a slightly bored dude who has most-of-it-all, in his dope, pool-included mansion. However, a sudden tragedy takes place in Adam’s life, and it’s Cariño who ironically is the closest person to help Adam alleviate the pain and get through the time of hardship.

The two develop a relationship, and – to be honest – their Spanish lessons are only an excuse to slip into conversions about more profound themes. Morales skillfully paints the differences between Adam and Cariño, without the need to exaggerate either of them. One plot twist’s enough to stir the pot, and vivisect the two in order to find curious misconceptions and friction points that appear as Adam and Cariño open up.

Cariño remains humble and withdrawn; she clashes with Adam’s openness, and struggles to meet the expectation of an equally arms-wide-open attitude he expects. Frankly, this newly formed connection goes far beyond the boundary of tutor-pupil dynamic. On numerous occasions, you get the feeling that while Cariño attempts to remain professional, she’s also susceptible to Adam’s charm, drawn to be the empathetic person he desperately needs.

Morales also explores the online form of the relationship. Who didn’t benefit from the “I’m sorry, the connection’s poor” to turn off the camera sometimes, or even leave a call at some point of the pandemic? Morales jokes about it in a laidback fashion, balancing out the potential cringe that could arise from making a zoom movie.

promo image of language lessons, film by Natalie Morales

On the other hand, the “online” movies fatigue arrived quite early, and the concept of following video calls, even in spite of the plot that drives them, still can’t break the curse of their monotony and the effect of wearing-off halfway through the show. If you spend hours per day on zoom, an online-conferenced piece of art offers very little thrill.

Hence, despite the technical uniformity, Language Lessons (2021) had to conjure up a couple that manages to glue the audience to their home-set screens. Admittedly, Morales and Duplass have perfect chemistry together. Adam’s a character that’s not easy to like, but the tragedy he experiences heavily defines our perception of him. He gets a pass. Meanwhile, Cariño earns our trust and sympathy right away – she’s caring, and engaged, and respectful about the boundaries with a man she – let’s be honest – doesn’t really know.

Thanks to the talents of both Morales and Duplass, Language Lessons (2021) manages to stay afloat despite its monotonous, and all-too-familiar form. The shot-on-screen movies don’t work for everyone (me included), and Morales’ story isn’t on par with the tension-filled Searching (2013), or the latest pandemic-set horrofest Host (2020).

Yet Morales lays cards on the table right off the bat. The director isn’t keen on making grand statements about the world drowned in turmoil. This is a bittersweet comedy about two people who surpass the harsh circumstances and form a heartfelt, sincere friendship. And if that’s what you come for, Language Lessons (2021) does deliver.

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