LANGUAGE LESSONS – Review
A surprise gift of Spanish lessons via Zoom launches the funny, charming, and touching LANGUAGE LESSONS, a comedy drama that soars on the magical performances of its two actors, Mark Duplass and Natalie Morales. Duplass and Morales co-wrote the script and Morales directed this surprising charmer where the characters only even interact on Zoom yet develop a strong bond of friendship. Duplass and Morales build such well-drawn, appealing characters, and the script is so steeped in humor and well written that, despite the Zoom call format and two languages, we can’t help but be drawn in, laugh delightedly, and then have our heartstrings tugged.
In this clever film, the two characters, who live in different countries, develop a friendship while only communicating via Zoom. LANGUAGE LESSONS begins with a surprise, when Spanish teacher Carino (Natalie Morales) contacts her newest student Adam (Mark Duplass) by Zoom to start his first lesson, only to find him barely awake, sipping his first cup of coffee and completely unaware that his husband Will (Desean Terry) has bought him Spanish lessons as birthday present. Two years of weekly lessons. Playful Will also failed to let the Spanish teacher, Carino, know it was a surprise, and he giggles joyously off screen at both the flustered student and teacher. Despite the rough start and Adam’s doubts about fitting weekly lessons into his rigidly-set morning routine, teacher and student agree to begin the next week.
Adam and Carino have very different lives – she’s a financial-struggling divorced woman in Costa Rica and he’s an affluent, married gay man in Oakland, California – yet they quickly hit it off. But when tragedy strikes, an unexpected bond is formed between them.
The pandemic created big challenges for filmmakers, and this is not the first pandemic-made film to incorporate Zoom. If you had too much Zoom already during the past year, your first impulse might be to run screaming from the room at such a prospect, but then you would miss out on a fast, smart, sparkling comedy, with two outstanding on-their-toes performers who generate a terrific chemistry on screen. This is the best use of Zoom in a film I’ve seen so far in a pandemic-made film. And the pandemic isn’t even part of the story, which takes place in some near contemporary but pre-pandemic time.
There is something refreshing about that too. You might think a movie where the characters only appear together with separate screens and speak a mix of Spanish and English would be challenging to watch. Far from it, LANGUAGE LESSONS is sparkling and smooth as glass, immediately launching into funny with rapid-fire dialog and Morales’ and Duplass’ mix of awkwardness and warmth.
LANGUAGE LESSONS isn’t a romantic comedy, as it is about a platonic friendship between a gay man and a straight woman, but it has many of the same beats as romantic comedy. Early on, tragedy strikes one of the pair, but as that character works through that experience, both the kindness of the other and their shared sense of the off-beat leads to both healing and humor.
The pair quickly discover that they share a playful sense of humor but have very different lives. He lives a comfortable affluent life of leisure in a gorgeous house with a large pool in Oakland, with his successful husband, who runs a dance troupe. She is far less affluent, struggling to make a living giving Spanish lessons on Zoom and teaching English at home in Costa Rica. He once spoke Spanish long ago, grew up poor, and traveled around before meeting his husband. She is divorced, also traveled, and once lived in the U.S. and is fully bilingual.
Morales proves to have the right touch as a director on this project. It feels like she and Duplass are having the best time, with the freedom and time to fully explore their characters and the growing friendship, and to play off each other, which is fun for the audience too.
Despite the restrictive format, the film never feels confined because there is so much going on with the actors. It is not visually static. as screens alternate between side by side and minimized, the characters move around their space in a natural way, and they take turns dominating the conversation. The lessons are practicing Spanish conversation, which also feels natural as they get to know each other, and the conversation is sprinkled with playful word gaffes, some slightly risque. He is the more talkative, outgoing character and she is more reserved, but her sharp mind and their shared sense of humor means they are evenly matched.
It feels a bit like listening in on two friends in a very lively, funny, interesting conversation. As story darkens and the relationship deepens between them, we are completely drawn in and our hearts can’t help but be touched by their experiences.
LANGUAGE LESSONS opens Friday, Sept. 10, at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac and select theaters nationally.
RATING: 3.5 out of 4 stars