We, as humans, are all saddled with emotional baggage. Our reactions are subject to the context of our lives, and as a reviewer I often struggle to parse my own biases to achieve something not necessarily UNbiased, but balanced. Which is why I’m going to be honest up front and tell you that a big part of my reaction to Language Lessons — which I loved, by the way — may be due to the fact that I was particularly susceptible to it at this moment in time. It’s the latest in a string of COVID-restricted productions, unspooling its action through video conference by necessity, but it transcends its limitations — and our FaceTime exhaustion — with some razor-sharp plotting and heaps of emotional honesty. The movie isn’t set during, nor is it about, the pandemic, yet the loneliness, hopelessness, grief, and everyday humor it mines will feel familiar. If you’ve ever wondered what to say in the face of someone else’s tragedy, given of yourself when you needed your reserves for yourself, or found solace in a stranger during a time of personal upheaval, you’ll appreciate the chords Language Lessons strikes. It is a timeless set-up, but also exactingly cathartic in the now.
The movie is a marvel of simplicity, starting at the creative level. It’s a true two-hander starring Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass, who also co-wrote the film together (Morales herself directs). The film opens with Cariño (Morales) dialing in for her first conversational Spanish tutoring session with a new student, Adam (Duplass), only to discover that Adam’s husband Will (Desean Terry, heard not seen) had purchased the lessons as a surprise. Adam, clad in his bathrobe, is unprepared for a lesson — and even more unprepared for the realization that he’s got 99 MORE lessons with Cariño because Will prepaid for a whole-ass package. Though their first session kicks off on uncertain footing, the pair begins to find a charming rhythm between Adam’s awkward oversharing and Cariño’s gentle teasing. This unassuming opening works to disarm us for the twist, which comes as Cariño dials in for their second session to find Adam still in bed. Just hours beforehand, Adam experienced a heartbreaking tragedy, and Cariño is in the unenviable position of being the first person Adam has had to interact with after the fact.
It would be easy for us — and for Adam — to cast Cariño in the role of guardian angel, inadvertently hired to watch over Adam for roughly two years of weekly lessons. But that isn’t the job she signed up for, and she wrestles with the sympathy she feels as someone who has also experienced loss while trying to find the best way to help him in her capacity as, you know, a Spanish tutor. She tries assigning homework to distract him, or taking him on virtual nature walks to soothe him, and their time together becomes a strange sort of lifeline for Adam, an outlet where he can interact with someone who doesn’t know him and whom he doesn’t feel the need to impress. That’s the thing the film gets so well: The freedom of strangers. It’s hard to see a loved one suffer, but there is a unique pain that comes from suffering while ALSO feeling like a burden to your loved ones because of it. That’s something I’ve experienced personally this year. You hurt, and you see them hurt for what you’re going through, and maybe it makes you want to run away, or maybe it makes you want to cover up and pretend you’re better for their sake. For me, I stopped answering the phone because I couldn’t control my voice, and I’d resort to texting with family and friends instead. I isolated and retreated so I wouldn’t have to add their concern — and my need to answer to it — on top of everything else I was feeling. None of that is an issue with a stranger, though! Cariño doesn’t know who Adam was in the before-time, and through their conversations (in Spanish!) Adam is able to construct that narrative for himself. He can own his pain, and share it in the doses he is comfortable with without facing someone who is already suffering in empathy on his behalf.
Of course, the thing about friendships between strangers is that they can’t remain strangers forever, and it soon becomes clear that this relationship, even as it deepens, is also strangely one-sided. Cariño is reticent to divulge intimate details from her own life even as Adam attempts to fortify their budding friendship by oversharing from his. We get odd glimpses at her unease, which at first is easy to write off as an attempt to maintain her professional distance as a teacher until we see that there is more going on. And here we’re back to that calculus of human connection: If Cariño opens up to Adam, will her own pain just burden him further? Is she in a place where she can afford to give so much of herself to him, when she needs to save some for herself? Is friendship just another transaction, and if so can it really be mutually beneficial when two people are both at a loss? Is it better to remain relative strangers? With Cariño playing her own emotional spiral so close to her chest, Adam ends up making some painfully typical assumptions about her life. The steady build of what Adam and Cariño share, and how, pays off wonderfully in the third act, when Adam has to contend with his White Savior tendencies and Cariño has to own the fact that — as a stranger — she’s not all that she seems.
The film weaves the push and pull of their relationship through these virtual “lessons,” and eventually through voicemails and the odd drunken late-night call. All they were ever supposed to do was converse, and that’s all they continue to do, just in a less scholarly way. The story itself seems slight on paper, but the richness of the performances and the characterizations — Adam, broken yet strong, and Cariño, strong yet broken — are absolutely engrossing. So much of our reliance on FaceTime, Zoom, and other forms of virtual contact during the last year and a half has centered on how unsatisfying it is as a form of connection. We were forced into it, and we used it, but it’s a poor substitute. We’d rather just see our loved ones and give them a hug. Language Lessons flips that on its head and offers a connection that is founded and forged solely through virtual video in all of its awkward, glitchy glory. It isn’t any sort of substitute. It’s the genesis of something beautiful and emotionally fulfilling that each character never expected to need.
Language Lessons opens in select theaters September 10, 2021.
Header Image Source: Shout! Studios