Language Lessons – SXSW 2021 Review

by Cheyenne Bunsie

We don’t want Zoom films.

Already a year into staring dead-eyed into the camera and letting the fifth ‘100% necessary’ meeting of the day wash over us. We know that having our camera on is about being ‘sociable’ in these deeply isolating times. That it’s only polite to let coworkers comment on our decor and discover what our hair looks like when we’ve been too depressed to brush it – it’s all about keeping up that human connection, right?

This is what makes it all the more incredible that Natalie Morales’ debut directorial effort has managed to be everything we need – especially right now. Teaming up to write and co-star with Mark Duplass, Language Lessons is a wonderfully heartfelt study of a friendship formed through tragedy – and a screen. 

Adam has no idea his husband Will has signed him up for 100 hours of Spanish lessons, so his first interaction with his young instructor Cariño is one of bemusement on both sides. He’s in a giant Oakland compound dedicated to preserving his morning swimming routine, and she’s in a small room in Costa Rica, ‘¡Hola!’ written on the mini chalkboard behind her. Then Adam’s entire world is upended. What follows is a real kaleidoscope of emotions as Cariño suddenly becomes privy to his loss and is now seemingly the one constant in his path towards recovery. But rather than settling down into a sweet tale of how this unexpected bond saved Adam, as time progresses through a series of lessons and video messages, it becomes apparent that Cariño is just as in need of a friend.

Language Lessons' Nails the Art of Zoom-Era Filmmaking – Texas Monthly

The video call framing is reminiscent of the ongoing pandemic (it was shot during), but we’re never expressly told what time period these conversations are taking place within. This is perfect for those who have found film & TV’s inevitable, and sometimes necessary (think, Grey’s Anatomy), shift towards including the pandemic in the realities of their characters, at best, jarring, and at worst, distressing. Only able to see Adam and Cariño when they speak to one another, there is much about them and the worlds they inhabit that we don’t know. But the easy chemistry Duplass and Morales possess, paired with a brilliant script, makes each exchange feel authentic and tightly holds our focus as their relationship develops. This groundwork pays off as Language Lessons remains captivating from beginning to end.

Language Lessons maybe shouldn’t have worked, at least not this well. But with a simple, effectively executed premise and writing that expertly unspools the sensibilities of both characters, Natalie Morales has created a real gem of a film that speaks truthfully to pain and loss, but also to laughter and companionship. Subverting expectations and showcasing platonic love as just as complicated, important and powerful as romantic love, with one of the most poignant endings of recent memory; this is a film that’ll evoke joy, heartbreak, and ultimately, hope. 

Language Lessons played as part of the SXSW Film Festival!

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