Credit: Jeremy Mackie
by Christopher Bourne Featured Film Horizon Line

Language Lessons | Natalie Morales

September 7, 2021

Language Lessons never quite becomes more than an acting exercise, but it’s still offers up intriguing questions about the disparity between online and offline personae.

Among the many effects of the Covid-19 pandemic is how it has radically transformed every aspect of cinema, including the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of its creation. One artistic response is to lean right into these changes, allowing them to shape the aesthetics of the work. This is the tack taken in Language Lessons, the debut feature of actress Natalie Morales, who’s also one of the film’s two onscreen cast members, the other being co-screenwriter (with Morales) Mark Duplass. Language Lessons consists entirely of simulated online interactions between its characters, both direct real-time communication and exchanged video messages. Although the pandemic is never explicitly addressed, the film succinctly captures how its attendant safety concerns have forced human interactions into the virtual realm, blurring the distinction between the personal and professional; the glimpses of domestic life framed in these interactions can engender an ersatz intimacy that often challenges personal boundaries that used to be more clearly defined.

With scenes broken up by bilingual chapter headings mimicking a language-learning lesson plan — “Immersion,” “Comprehension,” “Context,” “Grammar,” “Fluency,” “Extra Credit” — and charting the evolving online relationship of its two characters, Language Lessons begins with Costa Rica-based Spanish teacher Cariño (Morales) logging on for her first lesson with Adam (Duplass), who lives in Oakland. Adam initially has no idea he’s about to become a student; these Spanish lessons are a surprise birthday gift from his husband Will (Desean Terry, heard and seen in photographs, but never fully shown on camera). Adam and Cariño’s awkward initial meeting is the first of many examples of how the film both follows and subverts rom-com conventions. Will, to Adam’s shock, delight, and faint dismay, has paid for 100 weekly Spanish lessons, based on Adam’s expressed wish to improve these language skills, grown rusty since high school. 

The stark contrasts between Adam and Cariño are emphasized throughout, starting with the disparate living situations that are backgrounded in their Zoom meetings: Adam lives on a palatial estate, complete with a large swimming pool, while Cariño resides in a cramped apartment. He’s white; she’s Latinx. He’s gay; she’s straight, precluding any kind of romantic relationship, making this the film’s most radical subversion of rom-com tropes, turning the narrative into a relatively rare examination of burgeoning platonic friendship. 

It turns out Adam hardly even needs the lessons; although his speech is often halting and broken, he can hold a conversation in Spanish fairly well. Still, he continues with the lessons, warming to Cariño and enjoying her virtual company, and it seems those sentiments are mutual. Early on, a personal tragedy befalls Adam, and he clings to his sessions with Cariño as comfort and distraction from his grief. Cariño is a willing consoler at first, but she balks when Adam gets too inquisitive about her private life, at one point accusing Adam of having a white savior complex when he suspects her circumstances are far from ideal and offers to help. 

Films of such minimal design, such as this, often lean heavily on performance, and here, that piece impresses mightily, especially Morales’ turn. It’s a movie consisting mostly of close-ups, and the way Morales is able to run the gamut of her character’s emotional transformations almost solely through facial expressions is mesmerizing and profoundly charismatic, easily the most compelling aspect of the film. Although Language Lessons never entirely shakes the sense of essentially being a feature-length acting exercise, it nevertheless succeeds at interrogating, in poignantly affecting terms, the gulf between online and offline personae, and questioning what’s left of our identities and relations with one another when computer images and physical distances are interrupted.

Originally published as part of Berlin Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 7.
Published as part of SXSW Film Festival — Dispatch 1.