You have to wonder about the shelf life of all the compact film productions being stitched together around COVID pandemic restraints, particularly those in which the visual field is limited to computer desktops. When we finally escape the confinement of video calls for most of the social interactions outside our immediate circles, is anyone really going to hunger for the dulcet chimes of a Skype connection or the flat images of a Zoom meeting? That question aside, actress-turned-director Natalie Morales shows both resourcefulness and sensitivity in her touching first feature, Language Lessons, starring as a Spanish teacher drawn closer to her student in the wake of devastating trauma.
Appearing alongside her co-writer Mark Duplass, Morales pulls off the difficult trick of fostering intimacy out of a long-distance relationship framed by technology. The empathy invested in both their characters pulls you in and helps to minimize the gimmickry of a narrative constructed entirely out of personal-device screen time.
The lengths to which the director and her nimble DP Jeremy Mackie go to vary the visuals — calls are logged from a swimming pool, a bed, a sauna, a hammock and a bamboo grove, among other places — sometimes draws attention to the effort involved in breathing dimension into the format. But such distractions don’t stop this heartfelt story about unexpected bonds being satisfying entertainment on its own modest terms, which should help secure a streaming spot following back-to-back premieres at the Berlin and SXSW festivals.
Like another recent COVID-compliant production, Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie, one of the chief assets here is a fabulous house to serve as the primary setting — in this case a cocoon of cherry-wood paneling, eye-catching modern art pieces and large, light-flooded windows onto a sprawling deck and pool area.
Adam (Duplass) has been married for roughly a year to Will (Desean Terry, seen only in photographs and a brief partial glimpse), who heads a celebrated contemporary dance company in Oakland, California. It emerges gradually that Adam is still adjusting, not always comfortably, to a life of wealth and leisure. Meeting Will prompted him to take the plunge and embrace his sexuality, which had previously been smothered in subconscious desire throughout a heterosexual marriage.
The primary weakness in the script is that we know nothing else about Adam aside from him being raised Catholic. Did he ever have a job? Does he have other friends? A family? We learn that he comes from a humbler background, but what and where? He appears to be a blank canvas brought to life only through his marriage to another man. But that’s no doubt a queer narrative that exists in the real world, and Duplass brings disarming openness to the role, persuasively sketching the transformative arc of his character’s life and suggesting even a delicate hint of embarrassment about his years in denial. At 45, Adam is a man grateful for the late-in-life liberation of his spirit, a feeling he often expresses with appealing awkwardness in broken Spanish.
The package of 1,000 hours of online lessons is a surprise gift from Will in response to Adam’s wistful mention of his high school Spanish. It’s left to his teacher Cariño (Morales), beamed in via Zoom from Costa Rica, to explain the setup to a bemused Adam in a cyberspace meet-cute. He’s initially anxious about fitting the weekly lessons into his morning routine, but soon welcomes the idea, sparking a relaxed rapport with Cariño as he confuses the word for “embarrassed” with “pregnant,” and comes up with the term “explique-hombre” to denote “mansplainer.”
The film is broken down into bilingual chapter headings: “Immersion,” “Comprehension,” “Context,” “Grammar,” “Extra Credit” and “Fluency,” which have loose parallels in the evolving friendship of Adam and Cariño.
The big shift comes early on, after a number of lessons left deliberately vague, when Adam is late for their weekly appointment and Cariño calls to find him in a near-catatonic state in bed. Stunned by sudden tragedy, he shares halting details of what happened, and her calm compassion becomes a welcome cushion from his sorrow. The introduction of Gaby Moreno’s gentle guitar and percussion score around this point elegantly marks the shift from light humor into more emotional territory.
There are lovely observations about crippling grief in the screenplay, simple yet moving, such as Adam’s description of waking up every morning in a state of dream-addled disorientation, only to experience loss all over again with full consciousness. Cariño’s nurturing attitude toward him is grounded in her own sadness, though she remains the more reserved of the two.
Adam responds with gratitude to the life-raft of her friendship through a tough time, becoming increasingly warm as he begins to regain his emotional strength. When personal revelations that Cariño has attempted to keep hidden come to light, she pulls back abruptly, reinforcing boundaries and even attempting to suspend the lessons once Adam presumes to intuit the struggles of her life.
But his insistence on being there for her the same way she has been for him eventually breaks down her brittle walls in plot developments that border on schematic but nonetheless build a bittersweet tenderness that’s quite affecting. Even the movie-ish outcome of the final scene becomes easy enough to swallow given the depth of feeling brought to the film.
Morales and Duplass previously worked together on an episode of the HBO anthology Room 104, which may have added to the pleasing naturalness and ease of their performances here, shifting back and forth between English and Spanish. Language Lessons, which comes from the Duplass Brothers indie production stable, is a small-scale debut but one graced with charm and genuine heart.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special)
Production companies: Duplass Brothers Productions, Devastator Productions Incorporated
Cast: Mark Duplass, Natalie Morales
Director: Natalie Morales
Screenwriters: Mark Duplass, Natalie Morales
Producer: Mel Eslyn
Executive producers: Mark Duplass, Jay Duplass, Natalie Morales
Director of photography: Jeremy Mackie
Music: Gaby Moreno
Editor: Aleshka Ferrero
Sound designer: Zach Goheen