Review: LANGUAGE LESSONS, The Bonds That Form Online

Editor, Canada; Montréal, Canada (@bonnequin)
Review: LANGUAGE LESSONS, The Bonds That Form Online

I have often wondered how we might have coped, mentally and emotionally, with the pandemic were it not for video chats. While it doesn't replace in-person conversation, it's a decent substitute, and I shudder to think how we would have coped in an era without that kind of communication. Depending on how open we are, how honest we feel we can be, there can be (and have been) friendships that have developed over these platforms.

Winner of the SXSW Audience Award, Language Lessons is the exploration of just such a friendship, that blossoms between two people across borders and time zones, at a time of great crisis in both their lives. Natalie Morales (Bojack Horseman, Dead to Me) makes her directorial debut, and she and co-writer Mark Duplass star in a joyful, funny, and rich film, far richer than a meer glance at its trailer would suggest.

Adam (Duplass) has been giften 100 hours of Spanish lessons by his husband Will; his teacher Cariño (Morales) is based in Costa Rica. Adam's spanish is much better than he lets on, and when a horrible tragedy strikes his life early in their lessons, Cariño tries to provide some emotional support, and Adam finds himself sending her messages and opening up to her in a way he can't with the people in his life. And when Cariño seems to be encountering her own problems, they both find that video chats can be places to hide as much as places to be free.

So how do we present ourselves in this kind of format, when we have so much more control over what the other person sees: in what state they see and hear us, in what surroundings, and if they're a stranger, with the information we give them? What should have been a straightforward business - though not cold or unfriendly - exchange, has turned into something unexpected, and more importantly, unexpected through tragedy. It's one thing to congratulate someone when something happy happens to them; there's not much to say beyond 'congratulations'. But sadness and grief require more from us as individuals and a community.

Morales and Duplass figure this out through what feels like an organic process; that is, finding their responses in the characters. This is deceptively complex, as these are not characters in their everyday lives, these are characters who are constantly being active; what happens to them is unseen, what they do is what we see. This kind of relationship development is perhaps more common to live theatre. By taking it to film, they are writing the story as they go - finding what moments their character would share, what things should be said and would be said, that could get lost in a more 'normal' scene. This allows for a new perspective on how friendships develop, under not only duress, but a different medium.

Between the script, which is rich in its depth and makes you wish you were part of the conversation, is some fantastic editing by Aleshka Ferrero. Any time you are 'watching' a computer screen, it risks getting tedious; but not so here. The timing is perfect as to when we see Adam or Cariño larger and the other smaller, allowing for a different kind of shot/reverse shot (a new addition to film language for cinephiles to learn!). Along with cinematographer Jeremy Mackie's work, you can see how Morales finds a way to use old and new ways of the cinematic language to tell a story in this format, one which begs intimacy from the actor and viewer.

As we've all been using the video chat format for months now, there's something comforting about seeing it used to tell the story of this growing bond, to watch the friendship form under difficult circumstances. Duplass and especially Morales are great performers with terrific chemistry, and make you want to be a proverbial third wheel on this ride.

Language Lessons won an Audience Award at SXSW, and it's easy to see why; smart and funny, heartwarming without being sacchrine, and genuinely moving, it's a testament to the performers, and to all of us who have had to figure out a different way of being, and being together.

Language Lessons

  • Natalie Morales
  • Mark Duplass
  • Natalie Morales
  • Mark Duplass
  • Natalie Morales
  • Desean Terry
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Natalie MoralesMark DuplassDesean TerryDrama

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