On paper, a film like Language Lessons sounds like your typical love story waiting to happen. Two people (Natalie Morales, Mark Duplass) find the thing they’ve been looking for over the confines of a weekly Zoom call. The catch is that these two people couldn’t be more different personalities, which turns the film into a platonic love story. As a joke from his husband, Adam (Duplass) receives 99 weeks’ worth of Spanish lessons being taught by Cariño (Morales). When an unforeseen tragedy happens with Adam, a simple weekly lesson turns into a real and honest friendship.
The genre of films whose plots play out over Zoom is something that’s really taken shape in the past year. We’ve never seen a Zoom-centric film hit the emotional chord this one does. Duplass’s name attached to this film immediately piqued my interest as he has arguably become a go-to for the festival circuit indie movie. However, the real draw for me was Natalie Morales. You may not know the name, but trust me when I say that you’ll know the face. Morales has been around for quite some time in supporting roles from titles like “Parks and Recreation” to the recent release “Little Things.” Besides just starring here, Morales also steps behind the camera in her feature directorial debut.
The film taking place over a Zoom call presents a rather difficult challenge, especially for a directorial debut. Morales, though, makes it feel like you’re watching a play. Working in a limited space (two houses) forced some serious improvisation and, thankfully, both of these actors (who co-wrote the screenplay) understood the story they wanted to tell. There’s never a moment of weird sexual tension between them, which makes the entirety of the piece have an earned honesty. The audience is immediately affected by these characters and their growing friendship, which makes us sympathize with them when needed.
It’s these sorts of character arcs that only work due to the great performances of these leads. Morales and Duplass have great chemistry which is infectious to watch. They’re both so compelling on screen, even during incredibly heightened and tense trauma that occurs over a Zoom call. Morales never loses sight of making these characters compelling as their drama keeps growing over these 99 weeks of Zoom sessions.
The only detriment of this format comes from the limited amount of physical space Morales has. Throughout the film, there is a total of four different locations for the leads: the inside of people’s houses, the outside of one, and two rooms of another. That limited spacing can make the Zoom calls have a real tedious quality at first while the film takes its time to get to the emotional core of the story. In the first half, there are genuine attempts at humor that don’t land. Thankfully, in the second half, a better balance of both comedy and drama is struck with ease.
Language Lessons is the sort of film that plays like cinematic comfort food. Morales and Duplass give the story a real humane touch that never feels manufactured. The drama that unfolds with them feels both earned and incredibly engaging once it happens. Taking some time to get there shows that the journey is much stronger than the destination. As a fan of this sort of “talkative” picture, the journey was so enjoyable and had a satisfying destination. Qualms aside, it shows that Natalie Morales is a filmmaker to keep an eye on.
Screening at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival beginning March 17th, 2021.
Final Score. 3.5 out of 5.