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Distance Learning

Jeremy Mackie

Language Lessons (2021)

As an exercise in pandemic filmmaking, “Language Lessons” could hardly do better. Designed to be viewed on a laptop, the movie is the conversations between two people conducted entirely over screens. Cariño (Natalie Morales, who also directed) is a Spanish teacher, whose deluxe package of 100 online lessons is a surprise birthday gift for Adam (Mark Duplass) from his husband, the unseen Will. After a pleasant initial chat, a standing time is agreed for the next 99 weeks, but next week Adam is late. Cariño is annoyed, but it becomes immediately obvious something is very wrong; and to Cariño’s eternal credit, she does the right thing. But as the saying goes, no good deed ever goes unpunished.

“Language Lessons” is about the impact of that good deed, and how a friendship with someone you’ll never meet in person can be as valuable and important as those with people you see every day. No one who has lived through a year of lockdown needs to be told about the indefinable challenge of keeping in touch with someone remotely and how difficult it is to make new friends when it’s tricky to mirror body language, organically sense mood and just hang out in the same space together. But Adam and Cariño aren’t hanging out, of course, although Adam lived in various Spanish-speaking countries as a child, and therefore has the conversational skills to mostly hold his own (who knew Mr. Duplass had that particular string to his bow). Adam lives in a large hillside house with a pool outside San Francisco. Inside is full of macramé art, an exercise room, and a music room with a piano and a fishtank. Cariño’s circumstances are not so generous and therefore much more guarded. But her act of kindness put Adam in her debt, and if the lessons are to continue they must negotiate the power balance between them as well as their wounded pride.

Mr. Duplass, who co-wrote the (clearly semi-improvised) script with Ms. Morales, is a kingmaker of American indie cinema, whose ability to appear in low-fi spectaculars is funded by his day career of playing jackasses in a variety of sitcoms. But it’s Ms. Morales who is the surprise. Her sitcom career of cynical girlfriend parts has not obviously prepared her for this, but she’s taken her skills to a whole new level. The limits of the set-up are handled with thoughtful care, and the accidental reveal Cariño was hoping to prevent is as shocking for us as it is to Adam. The cinematography by Jeremy Mackie feels invisible, which is high praise – the realism of the video calls and messages means we are inside the interplay with them, and when problems crop up they are problems we’ve all experienced in this hell year. Zach Goheen’s gentle sound work also emphasizes the differences between Adam’s casual splendor and Cariño’s more complicated life. The nuances of their talk, of Adam’s attempts to be a friend despite Cariño’s insistence she’s fine, are surprisingly impactful. But then again, no matter what language we’re speaking, we all hunger for genuine connections with others; and when a great one appears unexpectedly, we all know how hard we’ll work in order to maintain it. It’s fascinating to see how well some filmmakers are working within the pandemic restraints, and Ms. Morales does the most possible for her film with what it’s got to use.


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