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LFF 2021 Review: Language Lessons – “A bittersweet film that will resonate with our need for connection after long months apart”

Stories featuring Zoom have been a growing trope of filmmaking in the time of Covid-19. But Natalie Morales’ debut feature deftly avoids any kind of lockdown or pandemic reference to make a simple but heartfelt film. Instead, the device is used to frame a bitter-sweet two-hander about connection and communication, starring Morales and co-writer Mark Duplass.

The pair have an easy chemistry from the start, leaning into their strengths as comedic actors. Morales plays Cariño, a Latinx Spanish teacher who lives in Costa Rica, and her initially reluctant student Adam, who lives in a mansion in Oakland (Mark Duplass’ actual home in LA).

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Language Lessons begins gently, as a series of funny exchanges. We meet Cariño patiently waiting online while Adam’s husband Will (an offscreen Desean Kevin Terry) whispers that he bought these lessons as a birthday surprise for Adam.

After recovering from having been gently pranked by his husband, Adam gets on board. It’s quickly clear he’s no beginner, having spent some of his childhood in Mexico. Although he does make some funny linguistic gaffs, then apologises for being an “explico-hombre” — the term they coin for the Spanish version of mansplainer.

The pair break the tension of their obvious class differences early on, but it hangs between them throughout. Adam feels awkward about his flashy (newly acquired, since marrying choreographer Will) lifestyle, when it’s clear Cariño lives in a flat, and teaches bored “gringos” (as she jokes) Spanish to pays the bills.

The first couple of classes have a loose structure, during which they share details of their lives, quip back and forth in Spanish and English, and leave joke messages to one another. But shortly after they begin their lessons, a sudden tragedy shifts the dynamic and Cariño finds herself in a quasi-therapeutic role as Adam deals with recent events.

It’s broken up into chapters with both Spanish and English intertitles like Immersion/Inmersión which serve as thematic notes, as well as a structural and time-indicating device. Which is just as well, given that this is a dialogue heavy film. There are no scenes without characters interacting with their screens. We don’t know how they spend their time in the days between their weekly lessons, apart from what is teased out in their conversations.

Everything we see of Adam and Cariño is what they’re experiencing in the present, either during their video calls, or in the video messages they send to one another. There are some sparse, but neat visual touches, like crackly audio and pixelated screens. But, while the WiFi may occasionally dip, their connection forms quickly as they share stories about their lives and experiences including, childhood, grief, sexuality, heritage, and marriage.

The film takes a couple of dramatic turns that don’t fully pay off. One third act argument around boundaries, and assumptions feels a little clunky. Hints at the kind of trauma and stress Cariño has been dealing with privately are more deftly woven.

Language Lesson works best when it leans into its themes lightly. A story Cariño tells about a linguistic misunderstanding between two people from different Spanish speaking countries makes both characters laugh hard. And it’s infectious. By turning the rom-com beats into a story about platonic friendship — Natalie Morales has made a bittersweet film that will resonate with our need for connection after long months apart.

Language Lessons screened at LFF2021, UK release date tbc.

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