Mark Duplass and Natalie Morales in Language Lessons (2021)
The annual Inside Out Film Festival entertains film buffs of all stripes, showcasing the best and most diverse work of interest to 2SLGBTQ+ communities. Kicking off the 2021 festival was the premiere of Natalie Morales’ feature directorial debut Language Lessons, also co-written by and starring Morales. Read the full review below!
In a world where so many different types of love exist, what tends to be portrayed on screen most frequently is romantic love. The rom-com is such a sprawling sub genre, often focused on how true love is able to conquer all obstacles and end happily. Being asked to name a rom-com generates endless enjoyable responses, and a myriad of couples whose relationships sometimes begin with friendship. As is the case with many romantic comedies, friendship love is strategically set up to reach the end goal of romance. Harry and Sally, one of the most iconic on-screen friendships, still meet the traditional rom-com fairytale fate, still enjoyably so. But rarely are platonic relationships portrayed on screen without the characters falling in love, which as Natalie Morales’ Language Lessons so powerfully indicates, is rich grounds to navigate through. Morales’ endearing feature directorial debut explores two people making a complex two-person decision of whether their friendship is worth preserving. Language Lessons is a heartfelt platonic love story about healing, grief, and the power of human connection no matter the distance.
Given how the film weighs more heavily on characters than plot, the relationship between Cariño (Natalie Morales) and Adam (Mark Duplass) is completely at the forefront. Cariño is Adam’s surprise Spanish teacher; his husband Will (Desean Terry) had gifted him virtual lessons. During the first online lesson, Adam and Cariño instantly hit it off; she becomes immersed into his morning routine, the two conversing in Spanish as he chills in his pool. But when the second lesson begins in tragedy, the relationship between teacher and student unexpectedly deepens and gives new meaning to the title of this film. Lessons of love, loss, boundaries, respect, grief, isolation, and hope make room for these two characters to learn about each other. Shot entirely through computer and phone screens, the film chronicles their friendship and completely eclipses the trappings of COVID era filmmaking. Without the specificity of mentioning or alluding to the pandemic at all, the story feels evergreen in its depiction of long-term relationships where people rely on technology to see each other often.
Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass take the plunge together into a realm where so much is up in the air for their characters. Not tied by family, romance, or the simple benefits of close physical proximity, the ease with which they can choose to disconnect from each other is at their fingertips. But their relationship becomes much more complex than the second it takes to close a laptop. Morales and Duplass are brilliant to watch. Full of intrigue and surprises, they make the growing friendship between Cariño and Adam evolve so effortlessly. Their chemistry is instantly endearing, which makes the second Spanish lesson and everything that follows all the more poignant and emotionally involving. They bring a wonderful conversation piece to life, and drive home the power of human connection. Naturally the structure of this film is close to the bone, existing at a time when people from all around the world use technology more than ever to cultivate relationships. So many intricacies and details about how we communicate get lost behind a screen, a limitation that becomes interesting discourse in Language Lessons. The film engages in layered conversations about what it takes to really know a person deep down. Cariño brings up a resonating point about the gaps Adam fills in about her in his head. He starts to create a narrative beneficial to the way he wants her to fit into his life. He wants to save her from her circumstances. It’s a dynamic that speaks so truthfully to how Adam feels he knows her right off the bat, how the influence of his white privilege sidesteps truthful interactions, and the unfair position this puts Cariño in.
By focusing solely on the two main characters, and the way their bond develops over time, the actors have so much room to navigate the intricacies of friendship. Unlike romantic love, platonic love doesn’t have the traditional milestones to celebrate highs. Platonic relationships are full of so many potential pitfalls and ‘what if’ moments. What happens if one person says, “I love you” early on? How would such a declaration affect the dynamic? There’s an incredibly vulnerable scene when Adam tells Cariño how much he cares about her, and there’s a moment on her end when she’s uncertain of how to respond. That space of unknown feelings makes way for an interesting area to explore. Boundaries are set, the stakes are high, and there are no guarantees between the two of them. All the intricacies of being a friend to someone show how much harder it can be to navigate a platonic relationship than a romantic one. Given the computer/phone screen structure, and watching two people connect solely through technology, there’s the added layer of how easily someone can disappear from one’s life for any given period of time. Language Lessons utilizes this structure so brilliantly to tell a story. After the second Spanish lesson, Cariño and Adam decide to communicate via video messages. Without adhering to a schedule, they have time to ruminate on events and drop in on their own time. Both of them start to send messages from whichever moment inspires them to do so, which adds more texture to the story and reveals details about their daily lives outside of the lessons. As Cariño stresses in one of the more emotionally heightened scenes in the film, she has a life beyond Adam. This moment speaks to how incredibly talented Morales is both on and off the screen; she utterly inhabits this character and shares wonderful chemistry with Duplass. Together, as co-stars and co-writers, they bring so much emotion to such a tiny seed of a story.
Getting to see the spontaneous interactions between Cariño and Adam goes to show how one meeting between two people can make a difference. Language Lessons is a stellar embrace of vulnerability and opening up to one another about the most intimate details. A cycle of grief and loss manifests in these two characters, and the two of them alone convey it all. There are no detailed backstories or revealing flashbacks, but rather a stream of communication where the actors say so much within a limited frame. Language Lessons is an endearing exploration of how a platonic relationship takes shape, with a sweet spot that harkens to the comfort of a good rom-com. Shining through is the message that no matter how isolated or distant people are, a loving connection is possible to find.
The 2021 Inside Out Film Festival runs from May 27 to June 6. 🇨🇦