Berlinale FF 2021

Language Lessons review – tender comedy of platonic love and trauma

Natalie Morales impresses with a wise, devastating directorial debut about an unexpected digital friendship, co-starring Mark Duplass

In Natalie Morales’ tender directorial debut Language Lessons, what begins as an extremely generous birthday gift quickly turns into a lifeline. The actor-turned-director also writes and stars alongside Mark Duplass in a two-hander wrestling with the boundaries we set ourselves and the pain, and ultimate power, that often comes from letting another person in.

There’s no indication on a timeframe, but the screen-based story may as well be set during our ongoing pandemic – and was filmed during it. Adam (Duplass) has been gifted 100 Spanish lessons by his husband Will (Desean Terry). Cariño (Morales) is his Costa Rica-based teacher. They speak to each other on video calls and always look straight into camera – sometimes in real time, seen through split screen, at other times in recorded messages, left like voicemails.

Embracing the medium without ever becoming performative, the film offers a thoughtful commentary on both the advantages and limitations of a digital relationship. The lack of physical proximity makes it easier for each person to stay guarded when they choose to, while the occasional tech glitches glimpsed here are always well-judged and crucial to the plot. But the possibility of these lessons taking place at all, of this bond being forged, is obviously miraculous in itself, and Duplass and Morales still allow us to feel the sparkle or sadness in Adam and Cariño’s eyes, however far apart they are.

The pair have tremendous chemistry, having worked together before and sculpted the film from a workable lockdown idea pitched by Duplass to Morales. But this is no time waster, nor is it another quirky comedy about an unlikely friendship. While it's often funny and does beautifully frame the nuances of platonic love, what could have seemed pedestrian quickly switches gears as an instance of devastating loss colours events after the pair’s first lesson.

Duplass plays Adam with raw vulnerability, mining deep while never going too far. The film, obviously, lives and dies on these performances – and Morales balances Duplass’ unpolished grief with boundless energy one second and a wild sense of affection, or fear, in the next. These are wide-ranging, generous performances, and Morales in particular is nothing short of a revelation, as conscientious a director as she is a firecracker performer.

Language Lessons is about learning to care for another person in unusual circumstances, grappling with the responsibility of something you didn’t sign up for. What could have been a topical, forgettable sketch basking in the mundanity of a long-distance friendship between two people you have no reason to care about winds up speaking to an anxiety and pain that’s true and universal: joy, and sorrow, can stem from unexpected places and ripple in ways that feel terrifying.

Morales and Duplass write wisely about the realisation that life is precarious, without veering into melodrama or cliché. You quietly, carefully, come to notice the bravery it takes to trust another person, and to acknowledge your own trauma as part of a process. One person might be working through their heartache while the other isn’t quite ready to call it that yet. They’re separated by gender, ethnicity, age, class, and country – yet Cariño and Adam find a way to transcend this and come together in a way that rings true and feels hopeful. It’s about cherishing companionship where you can find it, learning that life does go on, and that love, even from behind a screen, finds a way.

Language Lessons was screened as part of the Berlin International Film Festival 2021. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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