“In her directorial debut, Natalie Morales crafts a sweet film about the beauty of human connection, though some forced plot points occasionally halt its flow.”
To make a movie in the middle of a global pandemic is to accept the major technical and logistical limitations that come with the lack of traditional filmmaking. Location shutdowns and social distancing regulations have imposed stifling conditions on the filmmaking process, so it only speaks to Natalie Morales’ assured direction that she set out to tackle and overcome those limitations in Language Lessons— her feature directorial debut nonetheless.
Language Lessons is the first computer screen-based film that focuses on the very things that a life of constant videotelephony has taken away from us. As the pandemic marches on day after day, human connection feels even more frayed as people become increasingly reliant on screens. Morales creates a sweet film about the fabrication of connection, even though some of its plot points tend to feel forced and overdone. Language Lessons highlights the LED frames keeping us apart, even as technology is ironically the only thing keeping us together. She plays Cariño, a Spanish teacher living in Costa Rica who’s been employed by Will (DeSean Terry) to teach his husband, Adam (an endearing Mark Duplass), the language. A series of tragic occurrences tether Adam and Cariño together; just as they learn to speak Spanish, they also learn to speak the language of friendship.
From the jump, the structure of video chats takes you out of the entire experience of the film. Living lives permeated by Zoom and Skype and FaceTime is painful enough; their infiltration of our means of escapism feels wholly unwelcome. But Morales holds our attention with intimacy— Language Lessons doesn’t feel so much like a movie one is watching, but a long-distance conversation one is suddenly privy to. Morales approaches the film with a documentary take, as opposed to a storytelling one. Her exchanges with Duplass could very well be happening in real time, and that unscripted impression is what manages to keep Language Lessons from falling into total monotony.
A lot of the film hinges on the back-and-forth between Cariño and Adam, whose respective characters not only exhibit a yearning for Spanish, but also a raw tenderness that they both feed off of. Both are closed-off individuals broken by personal tragedies, and as they gradually open up to each other, Language Lessons slowly becomes something more revelatory. Morales especially peels back layers in her performance, though Duplass rises to the occasion and even threatens to steal the scenes from her. Even with the physicality absent, they bounce off each other to keep their performances fresh and energetic.
However, Language Lessons still falls victim to the vices of computer-structured films, and lacks the substance to fully work around them. For one, Morales and Duplass’s script invents tragedy after tragedy, stretching Language Lessons into an exhausting ninety minutes that more than overstays its welcome. A lot of the drama the film is built upon is overblown to such fantastic proportions that Language Lessons is too far lost in implausibility for Morales’ directing to bring it back down to earth. Conversations about racial and class disparities come to the fore, but are left undercooked in favor of less interesting plot points.
Yet, through all that, Language Lessons never loses the core theme that ties all its messiness together. The film is all about resilience in many forms: the resilience of friendships and its ability to heal even the most painful wounds, the resilience of a person to rise above all the odds stacked against them in a world conditioned for them to fail. But most importantly, it is about Morales’ resilience in taking a premise so simple and creating something nearly magical at a time when the entire world is shut down. With Language Lessons, she shows her potential– and just like with her acting, she displays zero signs of slowing down.
Dir: Natalie Morales
Prod: Duplass Brothers Productions
Cast: Natalie Morales, Mark Duplass
Header image courtesy of Duplass Brothers Productions