SXSW 2021: Language Lessons

There are certain kinds of movies you’d just love to find at any festival. Language Lessons is one such movie: a modest, unassuming drama that uses the limitations of the moment to create a thoughtful film that will outlast our present situation. It’s just two folks having some long-distance chats over their computers. It’s also more than that.

It begins with a birthday gift. Adam (Mark Duplass) has been hinting to his husband Will (Desean Terry) that he would like Spanish lessons. Careful what you wish for. Not only has he received Spanish lessons, but one-hundred of them with the added perk of language immersion with his new tutor, Cariño (Natalie Morales). They will have weekly video chats until the end of time. The first week, Adam does not take it very seriously, setting up his laptop next to the pool, so the lessons do not get in the way of his routine, his other form of immersion. The next week, Adam’s husband suddenly dies in an accident (this sort of random tragedy-mined-for-drama is a one-note technique familiar in several Duplass Brothers pictures). Meanwhile, Cariño has her own trouble at home. A beautiful friendship is grounded around the duo processing their collective grief.

Over the course of the film, the teacher and her student become easy friends. These conversations in Spanish are never really about Spanish. They use their newfound friendly relationship to learn about each other, to build distance and empathy. They are two lonely souls who need each other and their chatting fills an empty space in their lives. Some interesting revelations unravel, better left to the viewer to experience through the film, about both the nature of Cariño’s occupation and Adam’s prerogative as a White Savior type, with buckets of money, but not always an awareness about his privilege.

Blessedly, the film does not have anything literal to say about the State of Our Times. It does not wish to comment on COVID, or even so much as mention it, knowing almost every other film from the festival will. Language Lessons knows that by creating this virtual chat situation, it is already saying everything, by not saying it directly. It is fulfilling an even greater need we all have: that of connection. Finding not just someone to chat with online, but anyone in the world who will listen.

Because Natalie Morales doubles as the director, and her co-star Mark Duplass helped sketch out the writing, it is a perfectly intimate affair. That stripped down approach to production, with few moving parts, but everyone clearly pitching in what they have to offer to the film, feels like a well-considered collaboration. Because it’s all chats, it means no real movement of the cameras, unless the actors move their computers or phones. It honors this format and stays true to it until the very end, without ever playing into that idea as a bit of gimmickry.

Our actors must be graceful. They are the only feature of the picture. Luckily, they play well off one another in the chats. The conversations are always interesting and naturally lead down curious avenues for a conversational plot to develop. Of course, the limitations are eventually felt. There is not so much more to the movie, besides where it will end up. There’s not any technical feat of particular note. It’s simply a creative and straightforward solution to the present problem of how to shoot a movie.

Language Lessons is a modest success. It’s what anyone might hope to find at a festival: a sweet and relaxing film to fit between crushing documentaries and joyless parables of our modern times. It’s one of the few comments on the present situation that offers hope. By tapping into our context of use, with video chats creating the whole outline of the film, it speaks a language we all understand: the language of connection.


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