For most of 2020, filmmakers have been bashing their heads against a wall trying to figure out how to make a movie in the midst of a global pandemic. Traditional sets require safety measures that are cost prohibitive for many independent film productions, so the logical answer is to use some contrived narrative element that will give an excuse for why the actors aren’t in the same physical space, and there are few crew members involved. Host, for example, was a horror film set entirely over Zoom, as a group of friends in quarantine hold an online seance gone awry. But while most films merely try to find a way to make it work, few have been able to creatively capitalize on the restrictions imposed by covid. Language Lessons, on the other hand, takes advantage of these production limitations, and first-time director Natalie Morales uses the opportunity to construct an empathetic, deeply moving story of human connection.
Mark Duplass plays Mark, a man whose husband has just purchased for his birthday a package of one-on-one Spanish lessons from Cariño (Morales). He used to speak Spanish much better, he explains, and has always wanted to become more fluent. But just as they begin their sessions, Mark’s husband suddenly and tragically dies, and their first proper Zoom lesson is spent with Mark in a daze, in the very specific part of the grieving process where nothing feels real. It’s a bold strategy, to drop us right into the deep end without knowing much about Mark or Cariño, but it works because, well…what better time to get to know a person than when they’re stripped naked and vulnerable?
Their relationship quickly morphs into something that goes well beyond simple Spanish lessons (although a surprising amount of the film is in Spanish, and Mark Duplass does a pretty good job of playing someone just this side of fluency, fumbling for the right words to express himself.) Instead, it’s part friendship, part therapy. Mark pours his heart out to Cariño, desperately seeking a kindred spirit in a world that, with the death of his husband, has become an increasingly isolated place. But for Cariño’s part, she alternates between opening herself up to him in turn and coldly, even cruelly putting up walls.
And this is perhaps why the Zoom setting is so incredibly effective: it allows for communication, but rarely actual connection. You get just a glimpse of the other person, nothing more than a brief window into their lives: just enough to trick you into thinking you’re getting something more substantial. Language Lessons captures that thirst for companionship, and how we struggle to communicate with one another (in this case, literally, as Mark fights to find emotionally nuanced enough words in Spanish to describe what he’s feeling). Our endless ability to misinterpret and fill in the blanks, sometimes incorrectly when we’re not given enough information, is on full display. Yet still, the desire to connect is so powerful that it overcomes the limitations of the medium of Zoom.
Natalie Morales’ directorial debut is a stripped down, bare bones affair, by necessity as much as by design. As such, it relies entirely on the strength of its two lead performances — there’s literally nothing else there for them to hide behind. Luckily, Duplass and Morales are more than up to the task, bringing a natural personability and chemistry to their on-screen relationship. The story is almost deceptively slight, packing a lot of depth into seemingly casual conversations. Every interaction they have is warm, engaging, and reveals something about who they are, even if they don’t intend to.
Language Lessons is above all else a shining example of how necessity becomes the mother of invention, and that it’s possible to make clever, creative work under extremely difficult circumstances. It’s one of the most well-executed films to come out of the entertainment industry’s brief covid lockdown, and it’s refreshing beyond belief that it was able to incorporate covid restrictions without making this a “covid film.” It takes the focus off our current despair, and lets Language Lessons exist as a lovely story about human connection at a time when we are most starved for it.