Mark Duplass has never been more charming and down to Earth than in his Room 104 collaborator Natalie Morales’ sophomore directorial effort, Language Lessons (her Plan B hit Hulu in May), but he has to be that charming to keep up with her.
They’re an incongruous pair but well-matched regardless, she the younger, hungrier directorial talent, he an elder statesman of indie cinema’s mumblecore movement. They make a surprising amount of sense together even though their roles are somewhat reversed in the movie’s context: Morales plays Cariño, a Spanish tutor living in Costa Rica, while Duplass plays Adam, her new student tuning in from Oakland. Cariño has the authority. Granted, the film opens on her face as she fires up Zoom for their first lesson, and her initial composure melts into immediate confusion. There’s a man on the other end of the session, but for all it matters to her he’s just a disembodied voice. “I’m Will,” the voice tells her. “So, Adam is my husband. I bought him these Spanish immersion lessons.” Adam appears demanding coffee, sees Cariño staring at him from the computer, and matches her confusion with his own.
So their relationship begins, the educator attempting to teach Spanish to a pupil whose Spanish is pretty darn good. He simply wants to get “his words” back, having spent parts of his childhood in Mexico and attained fluency at one time in his life. Cariño and Adam converse and as they converse, something more like friendship emerges, especially after their second lesson, which starts with Adam prone in bed. Tragedy has struck: Will died.
Adam’s isolation and bereavement echo sensations we’re all familiar with after the last year and a half, minus the eight days in June when everything looked good, plus the rest of the summer as American life slowly started backsliding into pandemic living—abated, yes, by the proliferation of vaccines, but still too much like 2020 for comfort as COVID cases spike for fall. But Language Lessons is only a pandemic movie in the strict sense that Morales and Duplass co-wrote it, and Morales directed it, during the pandemic: There is nothing here about a virus, or infection, or hospitals overwhelmed by bodies with no room for new ones. People pass away, but by other cruel twists of fate.
Still, the bond Adam and Cariño form through Zoom reflects the bonds maintained over the pandemic’s course through video chat apps. Loneliness, despair, misread signals and missed calls layered upon the dissatisfaction of virtual interaction: It’s better than none, but it isn’t the same. There’s no physical element, for one thing. For another, it’s enough of a challenge understanding someone or coming to know them in person, because there are enough barriers in the way of full, intimate, platonic connection without the hurdles virtual spaces impose on us. Adam comes to think he knows Cariño. He doesn’t, just as she doesn’t fully know him.
As Language Lessons progresses in screenlife—a mechanical style that manages to capture a contemporary way of life with a spartan artistry all the same—their preconceptions about one another are defied time and again. A computer can only constrict humanity for so long before humanity smashes through it like a rhino through a safari car, but smashing through the constriction is painful. The film offers us abiding sweetness up front, but filters down into bitterness verging on antagonism as Adam and Cariño slowly acknowledge that a computer screen is a horrible replacement for the real thing. Adam makes his feelings clear. Cariño disguises hers. Apart from unnecessary use of non-diegetic music, a flourish that takes away from the blunt realism encompassed in screenlife aesthetics, Language Lessons stares determinedly at both of them as they peel away the fake skins we all put on when we’re talking through a monitor.
Adam performs for Cariño and Cariño performs for Adam, sometimes literally. The film is a performance too, of course: Duplass and Morales play their parts with honesty and grace; they write those parts and the drama between them with straightforward understanding of the complications of remote associations, and the total package is then presented straightforwardly. There’s no other way for screenlife to present itself. But the film loses nothing in that straightforwardness, neither authenticity nor humanity nor Morales’ appeal as an actress-turned-multihyphenate. Duplass left his fingerprints on Language Lessons but the show remains hers.
Director: Natalie Morales
Writers: Natalie Morales, Mark Duplass
Starring: Natalie Morales, Mark Duplass
Release Date: September 10, 2021
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.