Early pandemic films immediately adapted to theaters and Zoom settings, but they were usually missing something. It was hard to get attached to a movie full of Zoom screens without immediately thinking about COVID. Likewise, it became more difficult to relate to content as we simultaneously learned to live with our own thoughts as we took shelter at home.
But Natalie Morales’ directorial debut, “Language Lessons”, creates a warmth that is so often lost in these virtual gatherings. With her gentle guidance and two very heartfelt performances, the result is a warm and charming film about platonic affection and the human need for connection.
Cariño (Natalie Morales) is a virtual Spanish teacher hired by Will to teach Spanish to her husband, Adam (Mark Duplass). One hundred weeks of Spanish lessons, to be precise. Despite an awkward and cute encounter, Adam dives into class with some intermediate conversational Spanish close at hand. It is clear that he is uncomfortable with his wealth and privileges, and almost instantly the question of really knowing someone arises.
The two begin to form a unique bond when Will suddenly dies and Adam is left empty and in shock. Cariño becomes Adam’s last bond with Will, and the messages and lessons allow his grief to fluctuate as needed.
But although Cariño shows she cares for Adam, there is an emotional wall that is put to the test. As she witnesses Adam’s grief and offers her support – even though he’s in California and she in Costa Rica – her own tragedy looms. As the relationship begins to be tested, Cariño tries to shut the world off, including his messages with Adam, but Adam doesn’t let go. And that’s the ultimate test of what their relationship really is.
In her first outing as a director, Morales plays with tone and uses sets to convey what is happening below the surface. She finds the connective tissue that humans need: comfort, communication and kindness. While the frame carries that familiar Zoom feel, the use of different colors and visuals in the backgrounds elevates the feeling of empathy – so much so that when Cariño starts to move away, the screen changes. The crackle of the limited connection that might drop the call becomes both literal and metaphorical. As their relationship is tested, so does their internet connection.
For most of the film, Duplass and Morales are the only performers. We hear Will and Cariño’s family for a few minutes offscreen, but the rest is entirely in the hands of the co-writers, and they really sell this platonic love story. As Duplass goes through Adam’s grief, his expressions are touching and fiery, but it’s clear from the start that the desire he feels is neither romantic nor lewd. He’s just someone who longs to remember what it’s like to be understood. Likewise, when Adam first realizes that her husband is dead, the anxiety and chaos that awaits it is expertly represented by Duplass’s movements.
Morales, on the other hand, offers a different perspective on grief and trauma. The way in which she restrains is revealed both in her posture and in her language. When she needs it, her Spanish becomes more formal and rigid, while when she reaches out to help Adam through her loss, her words are tender and flow a little more freely. Even the use of the setting – outside for a freer Cariño, inside for emotional moments and as a barrier to keep her from knowing her deeply – is done in a thoughtful way. There is a smart moment that asks how well can you know a person when all you know is what you virtually see. The movie doesn’t particularly focus on that, but it’s a clever, subtle commentary on how we live now.
My only complaint is Morales’ Spanish: I’m a first generation American, born and raised in Los Angeles. My Spanish is good, but no one would confuse me with being born elsewhere. So Cariño being born in Cuba, raised in Miami and then living in Costa Rica just doesn’t make sense. Her accent would be different (although her character says she moved to the United States when she was 8) if she had grown up in Cuba. And while we don’t know how long she has been in Costa Rica, the local Spanish dialect would certainly have crept into her speech.
This is a minor issue to have with “language lessons”, especially since the way Cariño uses the language also plays a nod to Latinos in America. The Spanish spoken in the United States is different, and that’s something those of us who grew up here know. Less than perfect Spanish is part of what makes us Latin Americans, a unique connection to our past while blending it with our present, and it’s just one of the many layers that make this film so insightful. about how we communicate with each other, even when we’re trapped inside a laptop screen.
“Language Lessons” opens in American theaters on September 10.