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Berlinale 2021: “Language Lessons” is a celebration of human connection

Language Lessons

Natalie Morales directs herself and Mark Duplass in a tender look at the bonds we form to save ourselves in a hard world.

How are we supposed to process our grief when the closest we have to comfort is sharing feelings through zoom video calls? In Natalie Morales’ directorial debut Language Lessons, that question is explored at the center of the story. Wonderfully written and packed with heart and sensitivity, this heartwarming two-hander mumblecore celebrates the beauty of human connection in any kind of medium, depicting how the unexpected bond we have with other people, even the one only shared via computer and phone screens, can help us heal from the pain of losing our loved ones.

Morales, who co-writes the script with indie darling Mark Duplass, plays Cariño, a Costa Rica-based Spanish teacher hired by a wealthy man named Will (Desean Terry) to give his husband, Adam (Duplass), a 100-hour lesson on the Spanish language. Though their first meeting starts off awkwardly, the two eventually warms up to each other, especially after Adam opens up about his life, his relationship with Will, and even his strange morning routine. 

When a terrible tragedy upends Adam’s entire life, the teacher-student relationship between the two evolves into something more meaningful. Cariño’s presence, albeit only virtual, gives the strength and comfort that Adam desperately needs in a trying time. As their friendship keeps growing with each meeting, these two individuals reveal more dimensions about themselves.

Wonderfully written and packed with heart and sensitivity, this heartwarming two-hander mumblecore celebrates the beauty of human connection in any kind of medium.

It’s later revealed that Cariño is also currently going through something difficult. But unlike Adam, who’s unafraid to open up about his struggles, Cariño chooses to keep everything for herself — and it’s understandably so. After all, Adam is just some rich, white dude she only meets virtually once a week; she must be thinking that he couldn’t possibly care about her. But then the movie, delicately and empathically, rebuts that notion by showing that Adam really does care about Cariño, that he really wants to be there for her just like she was there for him when there’s no one else. In that sense, Language Lessons shows us (and even makes us believe) that when it comes to human connection, there’s really no barrier. At a time when all we can do to connect with one another is through computer and phone screens, this part of the movie feels life-affirming.

Morales’ directing skill may not be in full display, as the movie is modeled as a video chat. But at least she and her DP Jeremy Mackie always find a way to not make the visual feeling too monotone. Glitches happen once or twice, giving the film’s more grounded feeling. The backgrounds of the video chat are varied, from a swimming pool to a bamboo forest to a bed to outside of some bar.

What shines the most, however, is the writing. Morales and Duplass avoid any cliches or easy routes to punctuate the emotions. There’s no big, dramatic monologue. In fact, from start to finish, the interactions between the two always feel honest, with a soothing, acoustic-heavy score from Gaby Moreno making the movie all the more intimate. Anchoring everything together are the performances from the two leads. Duplass brings levity to his Adam while Morales, whose character proves to be more complex, offers vulnerability to the film. A charming and tender small-scale debut, Language Lessons proves that human connection can blossom through any medium. It’s a winning movie in the truest sense.

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