Film Review: “Language Lessons” — Gained in Translation
By Tim Jackson
The film catches the rhythms and vulnerabilities of real life when two worlds collide.
Language Lessons, directed by Natalie Morales. Screening at the Kendall Square Cinema.
Language Lessons, a film collaboration between Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass, takes place entirely through Zoom conversations. Adam (Duplass), a well-to-do gay man living in Encino, is startled awake one morning by a woman who pop ups on his computer screen. She is a tutor, hired to give him 100 Spanish lessons, a gift from his husband, Will. “Why did you buy me 100 lessons?” he asks. Will’s breezy response off-screen is, “Because you wanted to learn Spanish, dummy.” The tutor, Cariño (Morales), immediately digs into the first lesson. Adam’s Spanish is better than he thinks, and soon he is immersing himself in friendly conversations from the comfort of his spacious designer home. We never see Will, or anyone else for the rest of the film as the pair’s exchanges become more than simple language lessons after Will dies suddenly in an accident.
Morales directed the film and co-wrote the script with Duplass. Throughout the shooting, the two choose to stay isolated from one another. The pandemic quarantine is never mentioned, and that choice broadens the story beyond the travails of isolation and loneliness. In our modern world, love letters and courtship have given way to data and functionality. The film asks, what can engender love and friendship in a virtually connected world?
Adam is gay, once married to a woman. This story detail eliminates the cliché motivation of seduction in an arrangement that grows into a friendship. Because the majority of Language Lessons is spoken in Spanish (with subtitles), the relationship evolves in comic as well as touching ways. Adam must struggle to express his feelings of loss in a second language as the conversations weave and bob between business arrangement and emotional support. Zoom is the perfect vehicle to break the fourth wall. Adam and Cariño speak directly to the camera and that puts viewers in the same “imaginary” space as the characters who alternate between full-screen close-ups or are placed on the edge of the frame in boxes, as in a Zoom call. Of course, there is a difference between a computer and a 30-foot movie screen (or a good-sized plasma screen) — each emotion, gesture, and expression is heightened.
Adam lives in a cushy lair, and gently poses his white privilege against Cariño’s status as a Latina worker for hire. He is grieving; we get to know little about her. He begins to make assumptions about her circumstances, as viewers do as well, and boundaries are crossed. At one point, after a tense exchange and a break, Adam tries to lighten up the situation by returning, dressed in a tux and a bow tie holding a glass of champagne. He then amusingly parses the difference between “ser” or “estar” — two forms of “to be” in Spanish. “Ser,” as he understands the verb, suggests a permanent state. In contrast, “Estar” refers to a passing, temporary state. In a sense, he is mockingly asking Cariño ‘which do you want to be, authentic or inauthentic?” She is not amused. But the scene epitomizes the film’s central concern: is modern technology widening the gap between people or bringing them closer together? Given our highly polarized times, the need for meaningful contact between people has become more important than ever — yet we still seem to know so little about one another.
The film was shot in 14 days in separate locations. Morales was in Costa Rica, Duplass was in his home in California. The two actors knew each other before filming, but only in a passing professional capacity. Morales acted in two Duplass scripts; he admired her confidence as a director. Coming up with just a germ of an idea, they went about writing a script. The brisk production, aided by a small crew and some artful editing, meant the two had to work by instinct rather than through rewrites and revisions. That immediacy pays off — the scenes have a cunning authenticity.
Another recent film, Together, makes use of a similar direct-to-camera address, in this case to look at a couple stuck inside their home during the pandemic. (Arts Fuse review) This is a highly theatrical script: the couple directly addresses the audience but, to me, the conversational rhythms came off as stilted and unrealistic. Here, Morales and Duplass underplay their roles, and the dialogue, which is halting and uncertain, is an asset. Morales’ reticence is Language Lesson‘s secret weapon. In contrast to Duplass’s mobile face, her stillness and retrained passion draw us in, aided by her beauty and wide beneficent smile. Viewers are left aching to know more.
Duplass claims: “I’ve never gone into a movie with less of a script.” The statement is significant coming from the writer and lead actor of The Puffy Chair, which he and his brother Jay co-wrote and directed in 2005. That earlier movie is a brilliant example of ‘mumblecorps,’ the label given to some highly improvised observational comedies by young filmmakers. The brothers’ influence has continued to grow in both film and television. Language Lessons, which won the Best Narrative Feature Audience Award at this year’s Provincetown Film Festival, shows how rewarding their agile focus on the quotidian can be. The film catches the rhythms and vulnerabilities of real life when two worlds collide. What’s more, viewers might learn some useful bits of Spanish.
Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.