“Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Bong Joon Ho’s incredible Golden Globes speech caused a stir in 2020, and yet for many, his words fell on deaf ears. Despite director Bong’s Parasite going on to win Best Picture at the Oscars shortly thereafter – the first time a foreign film has received that award in the Academy’s 92 years of existence – polls still revealed a resistance among Americans to enrich themselves with the task of watching a movie with subtitles. According to an online survey conducted in 2020, 59% of adults in the United States prefer to view a foreign film that is dubbed into English. Dilapidated thinking reigns supreme.
Enter Natalie Morales’ Language Lessons, a charming and engrossing dark comedy about two strangers connecting over a series of online tutorials.
When Mark Duplass’ bubbly Adam agrees to honor the 100 virtual sessions of immersive Spanish his ornery husband Will bought him, he finds a surprisingly strong connection with his reserved teacher Cariño, played by Morales herself. She is initially put off by his extravagant estate and bougie lifestyle, but when tragedy unexpectedly strikes, Cariño finds the walls she built so fiercely around her heart start to slowly come down. As their unlikely friendship begins to blossom, specific brands of vernacular come to constitute causation for merging paths.
Morales’s beautiful directorial debut may be the first – and possibly only – quarantine movie to transcend its time period. Many other projects that have been filmed during the past year have used the events of quarantine as exposition, with the existence of COVID-19 acting like a jumping off point to explore situations like couples trapped inside the same living space together, or rescuing a loved one from an infected retirement home, which will eventually make the movies feel dated. Language Lessons smartly sidesteps this trap by using lockdown as a creative prompt, addressing the filmmaker’s limited resources to craft a Zoom-based story about long distance friendship morphing and growing and changing into something more substantial. As a result, the film will outlive the peculiar current era that we find ourselves in.
Mark Duplass’ raw and vulnerable performance sparks well with Morales’s guarded teacher, fueling this somewhat straightforward tale of improbable alliance with depth and poignancy. When Adam sends Cariño a video message telling her he’s worried about her because of the marks he saw on her face during their last meeting, we believe his empathy because the chemistry on screen between the two actors is so potent and infectious. Charisma sizzles around our leads like a forest fire. In an industry where a story about two main characters of the opposite sex finding their way to one another usually ends in romance, it’s nice to see platonic love between men and women evolving so authentically with no ulterior motives lying in wait.
In a smart and sneaky way, Language Lessons is almost entirely in Spanish.
Just as Adam begrudgingly asks at the beginning of the film if he absolutely has to talk to his teacher in her mother tongue, to which she responds with a knowing smile, so, too, is the audience immersed in Cariño’s culture. Touching, important, and surprisingly inspiring, this movie is a testament to the power of dialect and how it shapes our worldview and fuses and unites us. Willingness to dive in deep past surface level schisms broadens the range of our accepted capabilities and ambitions. Morales may be working with bare bones in her first feature, but she manages to say a lot with a little.
/Film Rating: 9 out of 10
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Author: Kalyn Corrigan
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March 27, 2021