Language Lessons review: Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass in ‘touching two-hander’

Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass star in ‘touching two-hander’ Language Lessons (Image: © Jeremy Mackie)

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Just when you might think you may already be having enough video calls to last a lifetime, this new cinematic offering will change your mind.

Actress-turned-director Natalie Morales helms Language Lessons, which sees her star as Cariño, a Spanish tutor who dials in to offer weekly lessons for wealthy American homeowner Adam (Mark Duplass).

Having been gifted the lessons from his mischievous but thoughtful husband Will (Desean Terry), the already Spanish-speaking and friendly Adam embraces his new time with the sweet Cariño, who hopes to expand his skills in the language.

However, this new teacher-and-student relationship takes a dramatic turn when events in each other's personal lives prompt Adam and Cariño to develop an even more meaningful friendship than either anticipated.

Punctuated by bilingual chapter headings 'Immersion' 'Comprehension', 'Context', 'Grammar', 'Extra Credit' and 'Fluency', Morales delivers a short-but-sweet 90min journey through a long-distance platonic romance.

Actress-turned-director Natalie Morales both helmed and stars in Language Lessons
(Image: © Luke Fontana)

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The director, who utilises her video chat format with aplomb through naturalistic dialogue that skips between both Spanish and English, also delivers a thoroughly likeable but textured turn as Cariño.

This understanding and warm individual can also be brittle and haunted and Morales sells every beat of her complicated character here.

Meanwhile, the ever-likeable everyman Duplass (who also co-scripted the film) makes Adam a well-intentioned, whip-smart, and sensitive individual, who we witness grapple with huge life changes, his privileged lifestyle and important realisations.

Adam feels well-drawn throughout, despite the sparse details we have about his life outside of his gorgeous US home.

Morales also does not avoid the gender, cultural, and class differences between Adam and Cariño either, but simultaneously manages to cut through to find something even more meaningful – a simple and empathetic human understanding.

Actors Mark Duplass (left) and Natalie Morales in Language Lessons
(Image: © Jeremy Mackie)

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Armed with a mostly non-invasive and gentle score from Gaby Moreno and well-defined script and performances from its leads, the film expertly balances the pathos and comedy of an evolving digital friendship.

It also builds to its more overtly heavy and moving themes surrounding grief, mortality, distance, and fears, but thankfully offers some much-needed catharsis in these ever dark times and manages to avoid schmaltz in the process – even with its more overtly cinematic conclusion.

Regardless of its format, Language Lessons beats the potential for clichés, offering a genuinely involving correspondence through video messaging, which in a time when the Film industry and the rest of the world have had to endlessly utilise long-distance and non-physical contact, this is no easy feat.

Verdict

Language Lessons is a touching two-hander for director-star Natalie Morales and fellow lead Mark Duplass, offering a powerful rumination on platonic human connection and long-distance friendship.

Language Lessons premiered at Berlin International Film Festival 2021 and does not currently have a UK release date.

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