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A friend of mine told me the other day that he was learning Mandarin online. He said he was also using the opportunity for free therapy. I thought he was joking, but I’m not sure after watching Language Lessons, where online Spanish lessons are used as an opportunity for both of the film’s characters to work through their own personal problems.
Conceived as a project to keep both director Natalie Morales and writer Mark Duplass busy while suffering under lockdown, it uses a simple premise to excellent effect. It starts with a video conversations; one of many that constitute the film’s form. Will (Desean Terry) has bought his husband Tom (Mark Duplass) 100 lessons in immersive Spanish. Costing only a thousand dollars for two years, it’s an absolute steal. Teacher Cariño (Natalie Morales) — based in Costa Rica — is slightly perplexed when the lessons start, but slowly warms to the rich Californian’s affable nature.
Then something terrible happens which bonds both teacher and student far beyond their personal relationship. Over their lessons, mixing Spanish and English freely, they slowly reveal more about the other, providing a reverie on grief, friendship and the power of long-distance platonic love. The way that big events, emotions and connections play out over video call will surely reverberate with many people who have taken to dating, revisiting family and even attending parties virtually due to endless corona restrictions.
Although the film was made and marketed as yet another lockdown project, utilizing the power of video-technology to tell the story remotely, the film doesn’t just load up a grainy Zoom conference and call it a day. Rather, one can see a real measure of craft in the film’s lighting and compositions, using a proper depth of frame instead of merely lingering on Zoom faces. What lockdown projects, especially at full-length, need to remember is that these films can end up replicating the very same sense of fatigue from video-calls nearly everyone is currently suffering. By switching up locations and having characters interact with the screen at different angles, one almost forgets the circumstances of the project and simply starts enjoying the elegantly crafted screenplay.
It also really helps that both actors are really good at expressing nuanced emotion, giving the kind of multilayered performance that these calls need to pull the screenplay off. The limitations act as a kind of suppression technique, allowing quite significant emotions to boil right under the surface. Duplass has a knack for expressing pure, unfiltered emotions, while Morales’s use of deflection is extremely impressive. The film plays with assumptions, making us see the characters as they see each other, pulling the narrative rug from underneath us for clever emotional effect; leading up to a simple landing that suggests an expansion of the film’s own form. If only all lockdown features were this good: Language Lessons is a Beethoven sympathy compared to empty experiments like Locked Down and Malcolm and Marie.
Language Lessons plays in the Competition section of the Berlin Film Festival, running digitally from 1st to 5th March.