SXSW 2021 Movie Review: ‘Language Lessons’ Reminds Us of the Value of Connection

Given how it’s been a year since the COVID-19 pandemic happened, the thought of watching an entire film involving people communicating through webcams and video messages might be alienating. Vaccinations have been rolling out and we’re at a point where we just want to be more physically close to one another and avoid web chats rather than watch what is a feature-length web chat. That being said, Language Lessons is still a viable piece of quarantine viewing even if we’re gradually putting this awful pandemic behind us. 

Instead of being about the pandemic itself and social distancing, Language Lessons is more about how personal connections can transcend both languages and locations and goes in some surprising directions. Once Adam (Mark Duplass) does 100 online Spanish lessons taught by Carino (Natalie Morales), who resides in Costa Rica, their interactions start off procedural. But once Adam’s husband Will (Desean Terry), who signed him up for the lessons, unexpectedly passes, leaving Adam alone in the world, he and Carino slowly form a connection.

Due to Adam being gay, the connection that he at least attempts to make with Carino is platonic instead of a cliched romantic bond. As there’s a constant push-and-pull between the two characters with Adam being open about his life story while Carino keeps holding back on hers, persistently trying to restrict their bond to a teacher-pupil one, the screenplay by Morales and Duplass themselves becomes an interesting contemplation on teacher-pupil bonds as well as online friendships vs. real-life friendships.

When interacting with people on Facebook and Twitter, they can become friends of yours the more you get to know them. But due to a lack of physical interaction and/or them only giving fragments of their personal lives rather than a full-fledged story, there are those who may see you as friendly rather than a friend. Especially because small interactions here and there are what can cause people to conflate online friendships with real ones. Even if Adam chooses to be more than just friendly, because of his openness and Mark Duplass’ performance, one can sympathize with his yearning for connection. 

Duplass is quite seamless as the grief-stricken and guileless Adam while Natalie Morales acts as a perfect “scene” partner. In addition to serving as a co-writer and the director, Morales acts out her own seamless masterclass performance as Carino, playing up her receptive nature as Adam opens up to her about his troubles before swiftly putting up an invisible wall between them once she’s asked about the details of her own troubled life. To further how Carino defiantly avoids Adam’s pity, Morales and Duplass weave in the racial and class divides between both protagonists. As Adam tries getting Carino to open up to him, her reluctance partially stems from not wanting him to befriend her out of “privileged white guilt.”

That being said, Language Lessons thrives mostly on its commentary on the online/reality friendship dichotomy. It offers a gentle reminder of how valuable online connections can be. Especially during this stressful climate. Yet, its dual performances are what also have this heartfelt gem bursting with emotion.

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Matthew St.Clair

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