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SXSW Film Review: ‘Language Lessons’ Reminds Us of the Power of Connection

We all have learned, over the last year, how valuable human connections are. When you’re feeling alone or feeling down, someone else can be a life preserver. That’s nothing new, but circumstances certainly brought it to the forefront. Language Lessons doesn’t explicitly take place during COVID, but in telling a story basically over video chats, the film evokes our current time. It’s also a film that’s so full of emotion and heart that it’s impossible to resist. Playing at SXSW, it’s a familiar sort of work for the festival, but it’s done more than well enough to carve out its own little place in the cinematic world.

Language Lessons is a two-hander, essentially. Aside from maybe two other characters, one of whom we don’t even see, it’s all about our two leads. So, the movie absolutely needs to invest you in the pair of them. Luckily, it’s an undisputed success there, with some terrific acting, a charming screenplay, and an emotional heft that may well take you by surprise.

When Cariño (Natalie Morales) is hired to be a Spanish teacher for Adam (Mark Duplass), she’s expecting a simple gig. Adam’s husband Will has gotten him 100 lessons as a gift, hoping to immerse him in a language he’s expressed interest in becoming fluent in. The first lesson goes well enough, so much so that they immediately begin making each other laugh. However, the next lesson is upended by a personal tragedy on one of their parts.

As they continue to talk, an unexpected and perhaps surprisingly complex friendship develops. Before long, Adam and Cariño begin to rely on each other for emotional support. She’s more conflicted about this than he is, but the more they message each other, the deeper in it they both get. The lessons continue, but it surely becomes about much more than that. They may be a distance away, but they’re closer than most students and teachers tend to be. The power of connection looms large, to say the least.

Both Mark Duplass and Natalie Morales are excellent, though the former is doing something special. Duplass crafts a deeply sad but thoroughly pleasant individual, someone who you just want to hug. Plus, he finds the perfect balance of conversational Spanish to engage in. The bilingual turn deserves some awards contention as the year progresses. The right campaign could find some traction for him. Morales is no slouch, either, adding layers to her character as things develop. Together, they become one of the more enjoyable screen pairings of the year so far, birthing a friendship you don’t want to see end.

Duplass and Morales also wrote the screenplay, with Morales directing. Her use of video chat technology is fairly simplistic, but it certainly works. More so, it’s her script penned with Duplass that soars. Combined with their performances, they craft realistic and complex characters that we care about. In short order, you’re curious about them, engaged in their lives, and hopeful that they’ll both end up happy. Language Lessons invests you and once it has you, it doesn’t let go. Kudos to Duplass and Morales for that. They hit on the emotional resonance of connecting with another human being with a deft touch.

Language Lessons has a simple look and feel, befitting the simple yet warm story being told. If you like Mark Duplass especially, this is going to float your boat. Once it leaves SXSW, expect it to potentially be a small-scale indie crossover success. Between the script and Duplass, there’s plenty to recommend here. If this sounds good to you, keep an eye out for it as 2021 progresses!

SCORE: ★

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Written by Joey Magidson

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