Film Review: Language Lessons
Director: Natalie Morales
Duplass Brothers Productions
Streaming on Video Demand: 10.25
The pandemic has caused a flux of small, character-oriented films in creative ways. It’s also been a natural time to push the boundaries of the “Screenlife” genre, with all the action taking place on a single computer screen. The difference between Language Lessons and other entries the genre made this year is that this film actually works.
Language Lessons follows Adam (Mark Duplass, Creep, Safety Not Guaranteed), a very successful, whitebread guy who gets a surprise when his husband, Will (Desean Terry, The Morning Show), gives him the gift of weekly Spanish lessons. Mark is reluctant, unsure about where or how this new element will fit into his structured lifestyle. When an unexpected tragedy strikes, Adam’s Spanish teacher, Cariño (Natalie Morales, Parks and Recreation, Dead To Me), becomes a lifeline. Their sessions become as much about talking, sharing, laughing, crying and forming an unconventional emotional bond as they are about learning Spanish. But as much time as they spend talking face to face virtually yet physically very far apart, the question arises: Do these two really even know each other?
Morales, who has already had a banner year as a director with Plan B, is a luminous presence both on and off screen; Language Lessons is a perfect vehicle for her seemingly endless talent and charisma, and Morales the director does an impressive job of confidently utilizing the immense charm of Morales the actor without ever making it feel self indulgent, and she plays perfectly off of Duplass, who is a unique presence and hard to compare to anyone else out there, and he is so natural that it doesn’t feel like he’s acting. The two actors make the structure feel surprisingly natural and intimate, and where the gimmick of Screenlife has lead to films like Profile or R#J feeling too hyperactive, Language Lessons uses the genre to let two terrific actors develop a chemistry through long, uninterrupted takes. Language Lessons relies on genuine, in-the-moment interplay with a scene partner that mirrors stage acting.
The film is all about those unexpected friendships that develop when your guard is down and you need someone, and discovering that you really care about someone and wondering whether they feel the same. Morales’ and Duplass’ “screenplay,” which is mostly a structural point for improvisation, allows the audience to form an attachment in real time just as the characters do. Language Lessons is also a rare film about a male-female relationship that is neither familial nor sexual, which is refreshing and even disarming at times in its unexpected nature. Morales and Duplass also deserve props for portraying gay characters that are 100% believable, very human and never stereotypical.
Language Lessons is the perfect antidote to blockbuster burnout by breaking new cinematic ground without constantly throwing its creative innovations in your face. It’s a breath of fresh air and an exciting opportunity to watch two terrific actors act without any barriers or distractions. –Patrick Gibbs