Many people have become all too familiar with video conferencing over the past 18 months, so using that method as the conceit for a whole film may not initially sound appealing. But when a story is told well using expert actors, as it is in Language Lessons, it can transcend the gimmick to become something memorable.
The film throws the audience into the concept right away with Adam (Mark Duplass) starting a Zoom call with Cariño (Natalie Morales), an online Spanish teacher hired for Adam by his husband, Will (Desean Terry). The lessons are a surprise for Adam, who maintains comprehension and conversational ability from his younger years, but wishes to become completely fluent.
Adam and Cariño strike up a nice bond almost immediately, but very early on the film becomes about much more than just Adam learning Spanish. Through their various lessons and a variety of video messages they send each other, the relationship between student and teacher moves quickly from being merely transactional to something much deeper. They are able to reach that point in spite — or perhaps because — of the physical distance between them, with Adam in Oakland and Cariño in Costa Rica.
Directed by Morales and written by both Morales and Duplass, the film is able to achieve big levels of emotion that wouldn’t seem possible with two actors never physically performing together. Whether it’s the ubiquity of video conferencing during the pandemic or the way it’s used in the film, the fact that the whole film is told through screens is never bothersome. Even some technical difficulties — fuzzy video, dropped audio, etc. — add to the unique feeling of the story.
The film is broken up into six chapters which are technically meant to track Adam’s progress, but the chapter titles — immersion, comprehension, context, grammar, extra credit, and fluency — take on a greater meaning because of personal events in both Adam and Cariño’s personal lives. Also, even though the production of the film was made during and influenced by the pandemic, the story never references that event, allowing it to explore different avenues without that added weight.
Duplass and Morales make for a great platonic pair, playing off each other in many fantastic ways. Neither allows the fact that they weren’t in the same room with other to interfere with their performances. In fact, their banter is arguably enhanced by the separation, with each engaging in movements and dialogue that would have changed drastically had they actually been next to each other.
Language Lessons is alternately funny, heartwarming, and heartbreaking, making it a balm for anyone tired of noisy blockbusters or the stress of the world at large. It’s not flashy in the least, and that’s what makes it work so well.
Language Lessons will screen seven times, September 24-26, at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.