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.