The coronavirus pandemic and its attendant lockdowns and quarantines have already inspired a wide variety of scrappy slices of entertainment, from “Songbird” and “Malcom & Marie” to “Locked Down” and “How It Ends,” and that’s just in the narrative arena. While the desire to keep creating as usual production options are on hold is understandable (heck, even admirable), it’s led to a mixed bag of final products, even the best of them hampered by the restrictions of the era. In short, a year into this thing, “Zoom fatigue” is very real, and getting an audience excited to watch a film that plays out almost entirely via video conferencing and messaging is no small ask.
Fortunately, Natalie Morales’ winning “Language Lessons” offers one of the best uses of the format yet, a “Zoom film” that utilizes its constraints to craft an intimate, expressive two-hander, no fatigue in sight. Morales also stars in the film alongside her co-writer, Mark Duplass, who first conceived of the film’s relatively simple idea before pitching it to Morales as a workable lockdown project; the pair’s obvious creative harmony helps the film stay afloat even during some (scattered) rough moments.
It all opens in painfully relatable fashion: Cariño (Morales) is a Costa Rica-based Spanish teacher tasked with getting Adam (Duplass) back into fighting linguistic shape. As she peers into the camera, lightly rearranging her hair and preparing herself for whatever is to come, it’s plain that even she’s not ready for what’s next: Adam’s husband Will (Desean Terry, only ever heard in the film), whispering off-screen, explaining this is all a surprise for Adam, who has zero idea that a cheery Spanish instructor is being beamed into his home. Video conferencing has — for better, and often for worse — made it all too possible for even brand-new acquaintances to quickly be piped into previously private spaces, blurring the lines between work and home, personal and professional. For Cariño and Adam, the immersion is quick, but it’s about to become much more deep.
Unknowingly signed up for 100 (!!) lessons, self-professed “extreme creature of habit” Adam initially balks at the disruption, but Cariño is eager to make it work for his schedule. He can just fold her in alongside his usual Monday morning routines, and perhaps that will make this journey a little easier. Told intermittently through both English and Spanish, captions provide — often quite amusing — clarity to what the duo are talking about, complete with the kind of mistakes that anyone can chalk up to, well, a language barrier. (A few tech glitches, including jumpy screens and crackling audio, add authenticity without, thankfully, hitting the audience over the head with it.)
But Adam won’t ever get the chance to bring Cariño into his normal routine, because just one week later, a terrible tragedy upends his entire life. It is Cariño, plucky and punctual, who is the first person to speak to Adam in the midst of his grief, and that interaction will bind them together through a fraught period of time in which they both reveal new dimensions and depths to each other, all through their laptop and phone screens. Morales and Duplass are both appealing enough that their charm shines through in even this seemingly limited format, and the result is an intimate feature that earns that closeness through every stilted video message and free-flowing video conference.
Early hints that Cariño is also acquainted with deep grief arrive early, and the intermittently improvised script smartly layers in information that will prove necessary later, when the film takes some steeper risks. They don’t always pay off, and a few of the bigger dramatic jumps of “Language Lessons” feel invented solely to push the story along, but Morales and Duplass both infuse their characters with such emotional honesty that nothing ever rings wholly false. The film’s larger questions and themes — what are we able to share with each other, how much are we willing to let people in, and similar ruminations — are handled with care throughout, and compellingly fit inside Morales and Duplass’ production perimeters. No, really, what can we show people when we direct every inch of what they can see through a small computer camera? Turns out, more than we know.
The film’s clever use of the format is hardly its most refreshing element: told any way, the heart of “Language Lessons” would be moving and well worth exploring. Built on seemingly familiar tropes, Morales’ film resists the usual expectations of what might happen when two strangers bond intensely and under cute-sounding constraints. Adam’s sexual identity — and its fraught history, disclosed during one of their earliest sessions — removes the possibility of his and Cariño’s bond blossoming into anything more than platonic, and then makes that relationship just as meaningful and rich as any onscreen romance. Zoom fatigue may be real, but “Language Lessons” ventures to show how true connection can come at any time, and through any medium, barriers be damned.
“Language Lessons” premiered at the 2021 Berlin Film Festival and will next screen at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.