SXSW 2021 Review: Language Lessons

Written by Taylor Baker

80/100

Natalie Morales’ Language Lessons exhibits remarkable effort. Her directorial debut is creative, kind, well written, takes measured risks, and is above all charming. It doesn’t only have a strong authentic voice, but there’s a certain solidity, a cut to the narrative that makes it stick the landing rather than just not fumble it. Natalie plays Cariño who’s accepted advance payment to teach Mark Duplass’s Adam 100 Spanish lessons as his online tutor. Adam’s husband Will, who gifted him the lessons, passes away from an accident very early in the film. Portending a closer relationship between this teacher and student than is orthodox, and laying the first pavestone for the coming narrative built on relationship and communication.

Duplass and Morales take turns answering each other’s video calls frazzled, exhausted, or just plain tired. Cariño does her best to help Adam continue after his loss. Adam begins to put himself back in order. At one point leaving her a sarcastic video message from his in-home gym about how she’s to blame for his suffering. They take turns exchanging banter, until one day Cariño doesn’t turn on her camera during their lesson. This a strong formal hint at a change of pace and rising action. Adam visibly behaves differently during this sequence, and as their lesson is coming to a close her camera comes to life. Exposing her bruised and cut face. She insists it was a bike accident and has to leave but Adam, like the reader doesn’t believe her story.

Rather than giving more of the narrative away I’ll focus on the craft of Language Lessons and why it’s such a breath of fresh air. We’ve seen more than a few webcam film entries during COVID. Language Lessons shirks building it’s narrative in the COVID world and instead frames it’s story so it makes sense outside the pandemic. With Adam in Oakland and Cariño in Costa Rica. This feels like a story being told exactly as it might’ve occurred, rather than a screenplay being slapped together to acclimate to the conditions as so many entries from this period seem to be doing. There feels to be an external world even though we only see from the vantage point of webcams and in device cameras. Morales has long been a magnetic performer, I can’t wait to see her continue to mature both behind and in front of the screen.

Language Lessons was part of the SXSW 2021 Film Festival.

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