SXSW 2021 – Language Lessons (2021) Review

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Using computer screens to host films isn’t new, nor was it created in the time of lockdown. Films like Searching and Unfriended weaponized the computer screen for story, the technique showed up in an episode of Modern Family, and films like Host used it for their lockdown set features. Now, still subject to lockdown restrictions, Natale Morales and Mark Duplass have used the computer screen to tell the story of the friendship that takes place across distances made shorter by a WiFi connection.

Language Lessons, directed by Morales and written by and starring both Morales and Duplass, was shot to suit the lockdown life but it’s never about it. It reads like two creatives used their abilities alongside restrictions and created something not reliant on referencing the reasoning behind it. No mention of pandemics or lockdown necessary, just capitalizing on the reality of a world where online relationships have become more common, visible, and real.

Adam (Duplass) has been gifted 100 Spanish lessons from his husband. His teacher, Cariño (Morales), nicknamed for her propensity for caring, takes on the challenge of teaching Spanish via immersion to a man with a pretty solid grasp on the language. When Adam’s husband suddenly dies, Cariño slips backwards into being his emotional support, and the two become rocks for each other through video messages and language lessons that creates a friendship unbound by borders. Boundaries and lines are crossed, blurred, and changed as the two find safety in online anonymity that soon blossoms into a loving relationship.

Morales and Duplass are heavyweights and it’s impossible to shake that feeling while watching the film. It feels exactly like what happens when two talented filmmakers take on an art project with twisted restrictions. As a result, it sometimes feels manufactured, feeling like you’re watching an art project rather than being enveloped by a film. It’s not fatal, however, and it’s still worth applauding what they’ve created.

Morales’ warmth is imperative for the likeability of the story. Cariño is one of the first people who interacts with Adam after his loss, and her immediate desire to care is what gives him a cushion to land on. Without her warmth, it would feel too much like a man demanding emotional labour from a woman he barely knows, which it sometimes is, but her performance sells her welcoming approach to him and makes their bonding feel mutual. Her character’s waffling on how much support she is willing to provide works alongside her performance to allow the audience to make just enough inferences as to what might be happening in her mind between scenes.

Video chatting has changed the world in a way that has invited new friends into private spaces. For many of us in lockdown, it’s meant forging relationships that come with the surreal feeling about how someone has been with you in your office, your living room, and your bedroom without you knowing how tall they are or what they smell like. Morales did the best with this supposition and used the video-conferencing medium not just to tell a story on a computer screen, but to express how quickly relationships can grow when a stranger from the other side of the border is suddenly live in your personal space. It’s this innovation on the “screen” medium that makes this movie so special and powerful and shows what gifted creatives see in their societal limitations.

Language Lessons is sometimes a slog that feels like story beats were added with padding intention, but it’s the premise that makes this movie remarkable. Morales and Duplass didn’t make a COVID feature about the limitations of socializing in the world of lockdowns, they plucked the beauty out of the real-life limitations and told a warm story about friendship in a world where distance becomes ever meaningless.

Final Thoughts

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