With a year of the pandemic in the books and an end to it in sight, audiences can expect a plethora of Covid-19 films reflecting on this time. While many pandemic films have already started releasing (HBO’s Locked Down and Michael Bay’s Songbird) and more are promised to come, it’s hard to say if audiences will really want to relive this traumatic period of their lives. Natalie Morales’s feature debut Language Lessons is perhaps the best outcome of what a ‘pandemic’ film could be. Although it makes no mention of the pandemic, it is filmed entirely through computer screens and videos sent back and forth between the characters. This format is nothing new to cinema, but with the experiences of the past year, the form takes on new meaning and the result is a moving argument for the importance of human connection.
After a sudden tragedy, Adam (Mark Duplass), a wealthy high-spirited guy, is left grief-stricken. Right before his loss, he had been signed up to take Spanish classes with Cariño (Natalie Morales), a kind teacher who lives in Costa Rica, miles away from Adam in the U.S. Only meeting a few times online before Adam loses someone close to him, Cariño is left with the decision to stay in contact with him or leave him to his own devices. With an instant connection, the two keep in contact and continue their Spanish lessons, as well as form a deeper relationship that results in a beautiful portrayal of platonic love.
Illustrating the story only through the lens of videos and online calls, Language Lessons immediately invokes the familiar feeling of awkwardness, tension, and exhaustion we have all experienced recently. Adam and Cariño’s first encounter is riddled with this — tentative hellos, confusion, and strained conversation. It evokes a sense of embarrassment as we watch, unable to do anything about it, but also knowing the exact feeling the characters are going through, as if we are on the call with them. However, this awkwardness fades quickly as Duplass and Morales’s chemistry jolts the story forward, bringing us past the familiar unpleasantness of online communication. As the two speak back and forth, primarily in Spanish as Adam attempts to practice the language, they begin to uncover more about each other, which isn’t always what they want.
The act of communicating with a stranger online used to be a terrifying idea. Now, many people create lifelong relationships, both platonic and romantic, that exist entirely online. There is something comforting about being able to tell a stranger, who is completely disconnected from your real life, anything you want to. The online space also allows you to omit things from them just as easily. This dichotomy is explored in the film in an easy manner, naturally moving from extreme trust to reluctant disclosure. Morales and Duplass are two of the most charming actors working today, so their chemistry makes it hard to imagine a film like this working with anyone else.
After a year of exhaustion, Language Lessons brings lightheartedness and true kindness to the fore. The characters seem so real, partially due to the intimate format of video calls as well as the performances, leading to a sincerely empathetic viewing. Morales’s debut is truly something special. Her ability to draw out genuine connection and emotion from the script (penned by Morales and Duplass) is impressive, indicating a new directing talent in Hollywood. It is the honesty and connection that make a film like this so singular. In the onslaught of films that are bound to emerge from this era of history, Language Lessons is sure to be the standout of them all.