[SXSW 2021] LANGUAGE LESSONS -- A Raw and Poignant Directorial Debut by Natalie Morales
Review by Rafael Motamayor
It was inevitable that the Online SXSW Film Festival would feature a lot of films made during lockdown and incorporate the pandemic in some capacity. Natalie Morales's directorial debut, Language Lessons, is probably the best argument for movies shot over Zoom, with a beautiful tale of human connection and online-only relationships.
Mark Duplass plays Adam, a wealthy man whose husband gets him 100 online Spanish lessons from Morales's Cariño. Though Adam is initially only marginally interested in the online lessons, sudden tragedy strikes in his life, and he decides to continue the Spanish-language lessons, which quickly transform into emotional support therapy sessions that Cariño is severely ill-prepared for. Still, a friendship forms, as little by little they start opening up to each other, becoming the only person to see the rawest, ugliest side that the other has to offer while evaluating the boundaries of online-only relationships.
Morales not only uses Zoom out of necessity but incorporates the painful reality of online video chat frustrations into the narrative itself. Fuzzy connections and audio connections are constantly looming over the characters, and at times they even have to resort to a blank screen with audio-only. Though it can get tiresome at times, Morales brings it all back to the characters before you start getting distracted by the technicalities of using video calls.
It becomes clear really quickly that Adam and Cariño come from very different realities, with the former marrying into wealth while the latter is just barely making it. No matter how much chemistry you have with someone online (and Morales and Duplass have a lot of it), you still don't fully know the other person because you're only seeing a side of them that they're presenting online, not their full self.
Likewise, it's great to see the way Language Lessons incorporates language to enrich its themes of human interconnectivity, especially online relationships. As good as Adam is in Spanish, and Duplass is surprisingly good at it, the film finds a smart way to make the little misunderstandings that come from speaking a second language important both to the plot and to the characters.
Language Lessons draws you in with a raw and honest look at what online relationships are like in 2021, and the ways we can connect to one another regardless of the distance or the medium. If we are to have more pandemic-set, "screen life" films, Morales's directorial debut is a great sign of things to come.
Language Lessons screened as a part of the online edition of the 2021 SXSW Film Festival, which ran March 16-20.
Review by Rafael Motamayor
If you ever wanted to see what a good Lovecraftian take on Silent Hill would be like, then look no further than Offseason, a movie that puts the A in atmosphere and the tentacles in eldritch horror.
Director Mickey Keating has made a career out of blending elements from better-known films and regurgitating them in new forms that feel familiar but offer updated entertainment. His latest, Offseason, has nods to everything from John Carpenter's The Fog, to Dead & Buried, and even a bit of Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but it all somehow works together.
The film follows Marie Aldrich (Jocelin Donahue) receiving a letter saying her mother's grave has been desecrated and she needs to go to the island where her mother grew up and is buried in. The problem is that the island is just about to close "only until spring" (according to the locals). Of course, the moment she and her partner George (Joe Swanberg) head there, everything goes south, fog covers the entire island, and the locals become suspiciously hostile while teasing the arrival of an evil presence that once made a deal with the island's original settlers and is now coming to collect.
Despite a low budget, which becomes a detriment at times, Offseason manages to maintain a sense of dread for its entire runtime — though it certainly helps that the film is barely over eighty minutes. Keating wastes no time turning the locals' strange behavior up to eleven, making sure the audience is on the verge of yelling at the screen so the characters get the hell out, already. There is an almost dreamlike-feel to the way the film delivers information, with the film slowing down and exposition dialogues delivered slowly in drawn-out scenes, right before it snaps back into place and brings back a sense of urgency by reminding the audience of the ticking clock that is the raising bridge about to leave the island closed off from the outside world.
Donahue already impressed audiences with her role in The House of the Devil and she delivers one hell of a performance, exploring her character's fear and her slow descent into madness the longer she stays on the island. The camera stays glued on her at all times, bringing the audience in on her desperation and also her resolve, making for a slow yet riveting film. There are no jump scares, but Donahue's performance sells you on the idea that, at any time, something truly horrific is going to come on-screen, to the point where any actual jump scare would take away from the film's excellent and eerie atmosphere.
In a short runtime, Offseason builds an expansive mythology involving ancient deals, ritualistic curses, and a Lovecraftian god or two. Keating knows how to borrow from classic films to pay homage to them while building something new. Though he's limited by budgetary constraints, you come out of Offseason wishing he could take the ideas of this film into a bigger project, because he's displayed enough talent over the past decade to prove himself as an exciting new voice in horror. Plus, he's just made one of the best Lovecraftian movies in years, as well as one hell of a Silent Hill remake, which can only make me excited about what he does next.
Offseason screened as a part of the online edition of the 2021 SXSW Film Festival, which ran March 16-20.