Review: Stars Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass align in feel-good tale ‘Language Lessons’
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Told across screens, in one-on-one video calls and prerecorded messages, “Language Lessons” is actor-turned-director Natalie Morales’ second feature, the first being the teen comedy “Plan B” released earlier this year. Two for two, she has asserted herself as an artist behind the camera able to straddle the junction of humor and pathos to unique effect.
For this virtual two-hander, Morales stars as Cariño, a Spanish teacher signing on from Costa Rica to meet with her new Oakland-based student Adam (Mark Duplass), who is surprisingly proficient in the tongue. But the sudden death of his husband, the person who brought them together by paying for the classes, expedites the development of a caring rapport that transcends the professional.
Far from being a gimmick, the interface, familiar to many of us who’ve conducted our lives online since the pandemic started, comes as a singular tool for narrative engagement. There’s an intimacy to the format since the characters exist almost exclusively in close-ups.
In the exchange of slice-of-life vignettes between Cariño and Adam, personal tragedy and hidden preoccupations come to light, but so does warm levity. Language itself serves as a transformative agent in how the pair express their grievances. Adam, ridden with white guilt over his wealth, must consciously think of the right words in Spanish to formulate a thought. Being bilingual and bicultural, Cariño has an expanded perception of life.
Morales’ effervescence, particularly in a drunken scene, contrasts with the more reserved persona when Cariño conceals her hurt. Duplass impresses not only in the delivery of the Spanish-language dialogue — the subtitles account for his grammatical errors when speaking — but in the rawness of his turn. Together, they enliven the script the actors’ co-wrote into a delightfully poignant and intelligently openhearted experience that feeds on their palpable chemistry.
Though the film addresses the limits of online relationships — how much can you truly know about someone you’ve never met? — it simultaneously leaves the door open to the possibility of real friendships born out of sincere interactions even if from afar. Feel-good yet not cloying, “Language Lessons” wraps its comforting graciousness around you and says, “No estás solo / You are not alone.”
In English and Spanish with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Playing: Starts Sept. 10 in limited release, The Landmark, West L.A.; Laemmle Noho 7, North Hollywood; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle Newhall
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