Language Lessons, 2021.
Written and Directed by Natalie Morales.
Starring Natalie Morales, Mark Duplass, and Desean Terry.
A Spanish teacher and her student develop an unexpected friendship.
Given the opening scene of Language Lessons, which sees a confused online Spanish instructor named Cariño not even sure who she is supposed to be teaching, it’s fair to presume that a straight comedy about learning another language is going to unfold. Considering star, writer, and director Natalie Morales is already responsible for arguably the funniest movie of the year so far with Plan B, that would have been fine.
There’s no one in front of the computer, but the voice of a man named Will (Desean Terry) is heard pushing his partner Adam (Mark Duplass) to come downstairs and check out his surprise. It turns out that the successful and wealthy Will (they live in an expensive home together) signed up Adam for personalized Spanish lessons upon overhearing that he had wanted to fine-tune his understanding and speaking of the language (Adam can technically speak Spanish, but it’s not necessarily fluent or always grammatically correct, with quotation marks around certain subtitled words or phrases showing whenever something is off regarding the pronunciation).
A bit took aback but gracious, Adam goes along with the lesson until learning that Will didn’t just pay for one study, but rather 100. His hesitance comes from not wanting to interfere with his morning routine, although he quickly decides he will see the course through to the end as Cariño reassures him he can do both simultaneously. This leads to an amusing first lesson with Adam swimming in a fancy pool while speaking Spanish to his tutor. The conversation (taking place in a mixture of English and Spanish, but mostly Spanish as it’s best for the learning process) also turns to the juxtaposition between their respective social class (Cariño appears to be working from a standard working-class home).
Without saying too much about the plot, tragedy strikes for one of these characters, shifting the nature of the personalized classes into something more casual and less professional. Rather than assigning homework or sticking to a curriculum, the following courses (which come close to not even happening because of this unfortunate event) are freewheeling, allowing Adam and Cariño to bond and connect. Of course, considering Adam is gay, what develops always remains platonic, which turns out to be one of the sweetest aspects of Language Lessons; often, if a movie explores connection across obstacles such as location, age, language, and more, it’s usually with a romantic slant.
Opting for platonic, as a writer and director, Natalie Morales is allowed to focus on these characters’ chemistry and individual baggage and how that leads to gravitating towards one another only to push away. Even without love, the situation’s circumstances break down nearly every facet of traditional teaching. They also start sending one another video messages throughout the day at the height of their deepening friendship. Naturally, it makes the inevitable distancing that much more devastating to watch.
Language Lessons soon becomes a question of if it’s okay to pry into someone’s life if there are telling signs of abuse and a likelihood of being pushed away out of fear or concern of being judged. It’s also normal to wonder if someone so outwardly kind has ulterior motives, keeping one’s guard up until it feels completely safe. These topics bracingly boil to the surface with authenticity, compassion, pain, and most importantly, empathy considering the characters themselves start to acknowledge their flaws head-on. Language Lessons also beautifully make the point that it’s okay to be imperfect and broken while lifting each other up.
The final scene probably ends things on too happy of a note, but Mark Duplass and Natalie Morales are everything from adorable to tender to devastating, what the latter continuing a phenomenal breakout year as a new filmmaker. Between this and Plan B, Natalie Morales is someone to pay attention to, period.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com