Once upon a time, unconventional long-distance friendships were nearly impossible to create and sustain, but the digitization of the world has made it possible to circumvent the nagging issue of distance with the onslaught of video chat services like Skype and Zoom. Now, thanks to the last year-and-a-half of intermittent isolation, these connections are more common than ever. Language Lessons is about one such connection, with two people brought together randomly, separated by thousands of miles, connecting on a level that would likely be impossible if they were to meet face-to-face. The internet, contradictory to its nature, acts as the bridge to their intimacy.
Consisting entirely of video chat footage and featuring only two on-screen characters, the film is the latest product of the pandemic, with filmmakers channeling their creativity into projects that could be conceived and shot within the strict limitations of the 2020 quarantine. Natalie Morales is the director, marking her feature debut with a script she wrote with Mark Duplass, telling a story in which they can act opposite one another without ever having to be in the same place. On its face, it sounds like an experiment, but the film flows as naturally as it possibly can within its purposefully limited framework.
Mercifully, the film doesn’t center its narrative around the pandemic, which would’ve skewed the focus of the drama. Instead, this story exists in a hypothetical COVID-less universe where the everyday struggles and unexpected traumas of its characters stay at the forefront. That simplicity serves the film well. Beyond any external influences, this is a film about lonely people keeping each other afloat.
That doesn’t mean the film is lacking for drama – to the contrary, this poor duo is put through the emotional ringer, sometimes to a fault. The screenplay has a tendency to pound the audience with shocking revelations of Very Serious Human Drama that certainly deepen our understanding of these characters but often feel forced, as if Morales and Duplass worried it would be too boring to just let the characters talk. Whether that was a conscious attempt to compensate for the film’s lack of scope or an unintentional pitfall of the limiting format, it puts an occasional strain on a dynamic that is more effective without the authorial intrusion.
Morales plays Cariño, a Spanish instructor living in Puerto Rico who, as the film begins, logs in for her first session with Adam (Duplass), who’s more than 3,000 miles away in California. Their environmental differences are stark – he’s insanely rich, content to stay within the confines of his palatial estate and go about a strict daily routine, whereas she’s poor but open to the expansive beauty of the natural Puerto Rican landscape. What’s more, he isn’t even aware that these sessions are taking place – they’re a surprise gift from his husband, who we barely glimpse in the film. On the evidence of his fluency, he also doesn’t really need Spanish lessons, so one wonders why the husband would even pay for them. There’s a myriad of reasons why these two individuals wouldn’t – perhaps shouldn’t – ever meet.
Their connection ultimately proves serendipitous. Adam experiences an unexpected personal tragedy that takes his relationship with Cariño down a codependent path – their regular “lessons” give him something to which he can tether his otherwise aimless, depressive drift. The intense focus on Adam’s trauma allows Cariño to stay above the fray, not revealing much about her own story. When Adam attempts to probe deeper, we of course learn of the sobering truth Cariño’s been carefully hiding, which tests the strength of this unconventional friendship.
The extent to which such a reliance is healthy and appropriate is…lightly explored. The real-world legitimacy of such a connection is entirely ignored. In this screenplay, Morales and Duplass are expressing an earnestly open-hearted view of the world, one that flies in the face of the fractured, curmudgeonly truth of everyday existence. There is a fairy tale quaintness to its emotions-on-sleeve approach, but there’s no harm in trying to inject a little genuine compassion into the world. That’s what Language Lessons aims to do, and Morales and Duplass, working together seamlessly as filmmakers and co-stars, pull it off with a smile and a hug.