Review: Enriching Connection in ‘Language Lessons’

Writer-director Natalie Morales rejects the limitations of the webcam in her COVID-era platonic romance film Language Lessons. The film, consisting entirely of video calls and messages between Costa Rica-based Spanish tutor Cariño (Morales) and her student Adam (Mark Duplass, also co-writer), utilises Zoom as a primary production tool to spearhead its creative filmmaking. The use of the software doesn’t at all inhibit Morales’ exploration of connection during times of grief and isolation — it enriches it.

The film begins with Will (Desean Kevin Terry) gifting his husband Adam with two years of Cariño’s tutoring. During their second lesson, however, Adam tells Cariño that Will has died, and the two sit in silence while this fact washes over them. Cariño, on her smartphone thousands of miles away, has no idea how to soothe Adam. She does what she can: she takes him on a tour of the Costa Rican wilderness that surrounds her. Adam is lulled to sleep, and Cariño hangs up. With this simple dramatic scene, Morales demonstrates the laptop screen’s capabilities in connecting people and cements it as an exciting tool for feature film production.

Will’s death allows Adam and Cariño’s student-teacher relationship to cross into friendship territory. Although the formality of the Spanish lessons essentially evaporates, Adam and Cariño continue to have video calls and send each other video messages. Their interactions are dialogue-heavy, their settings shot from their web cameras’ unmoving single angle — effectively static. When Adam and Cariño talk, they look into the camera; it creates the appearance that while speaking directly to each other, they’re also speaking to us, and this intimacy draws us further into their developing friendship.

Premiering earlier at this year’s Berlinale and now at the closing night of the 2021 Melbourne International Film Festival, Language Lessons was set to be viewed on the big screen. In a way that is thematically apt with the film’s computer-screen format, we will now be watching it from home — some of us even viewing it from our small-screen devices. This spectatorial shift heightens the sensation that we are part of Adam and Cariño’s burgeoning relationship in a way that makes the film feel more tangible and special.

From films like Unfriended (2015) to Host (2020), the horror genre has dominated the computer-screen movie. Language Lessons, however, proves that other genres can also utilise video-call conventions to their advantage. Morales doesn’t shy away from the exposition demanded by this type of film; instead she leans into conversation as a pathway to sincerity and humour. She takes advantage of the video call’s need for excessive gestural and emotive communication to demonstrate the power of words and language as an emotional tether. In this sense, the film feels like a COVID-era Before Sunrise (1995) — just with less kissing and the emphasis shifted instead towards a developing friendship. 

What we see on-screen constitutes the real-time progression of Adam and Cariño’s relationship. Nothing happens between them that we aren’t privy to. There are no off-camera moments to capture, no flash-forwards that see us grappling to determine their situation. This specific structuring of the film’s timeline allows us to see how little time is needed to create realistic bonds, that quality truly is more profound than quantity when it comes to a platonic friendship. 

Instead of will-they-won’t-they sexual tension, Morales instead capitalises on the familiar awkwardness of the video call to create friction between the characters. Whenever there are moments of outright tension or conflict, or whenever Adam or Cariño accidentally cross a boundary, the other overcompensates with kindness or silliness to ease any embarrassment.

These moments of sympathetic deflection occur throughout the film, as the duo’s differences make it easy for them to commit a series of faux pas: Adam is a rich white man, while Cariño is a working-class Latina woman. Without camera angles to play with, Morales’ allows their individual settings to do the heavy lifting, showcasing their lifestyle discrepancies. Adam speaks to Cariño from various rooms of his lavish house; during their very first lesson, he takes his device with him to his temperature-controlled pool so he can partake in his morning swim. Cariño watches him, a crooked cork board peppered with Spanish words behind her. 

Adam and Cariño’s socio-cultural disparity, however, is ultimately overshadowed by their evident connection. Their bond is deeper than their differences. When Adam tells Cariño about Will’s death, the verb conjugations pinned on the board behind Cariño develop new meaning outside of their educational purpose: hoy es, ayer fue, mañana sera — today is, yesterday was, tomorrow will be. Morales, utilising every visible inch of Adam and Cariño’s background space within the computer-screen frame, reveals that each has exactly what the other needs to survive at the point in time when their lives cross.

Morales’ deliberate focus on the verb ser — to be — is one such instance of her focus on language as a tool that tethers people. It’s not words themselves that are meaningful, Morales’ film suggests, but the meaning that we attach to them. When Adam meets Cariño, he’s already quasi-fluent in Spanish. His minor grammatical errors, however, aren’t corrected by Cariño. She still understands him, and that’s all that matters. Their focus on emotional flow over technical fluency reveals their mutual need to connect.

This emphasis on language in the film is immediate, spelt out right there in the title. It’s the function of words that initially brings Adam and Cariño closer. After extensive probing by Adam, Cariño tells him a comical story about another student: at a restaurant, the student asks an elderly woman to pass him the bread, but because of their different dialects, she hears “pass the pussy”. Cariño entrusts Adam with the vulgarity of the phrase. In telling him this story — despite her initial hesitancy — her first step in closing the gap between them is reflected. Thus, their friendship continues to blossom. She confides in him, and their student-teacher relationship officially blossomed into something else, beyond the initial reason for their meeting.In Language Lessons, Morales highlights the video call as a communication tool with the ability to connect people in times of crises. The film is a significant feat in the age of COVID-19, showing that despite how tedious Zoom has become to the every-user, it can still inspire genuine intimacy. The program’s limitations provide us with a different, closer perspective than what a camera would offer, proving it a useful device for cross-genre, cross-location filmmaking. Language Lessons doesn’t shy away from the novelty of its tech-oriented filmmaking. It instead utilises the modern conventions of video-call etiquette to tell a deep, moving story about human connection that rejects the cliches of male-female relationships as having to be sexual in their romantic nature. Before the titular lessons take place — before the two even realise how much they need each other — Adam and Cariño are already telling each other, through the magic of digital communication, “I’m here”.

Language Lessons will be playing on 21 August 2021 at the closing night of the Melbourne International Film Festival.

View the MIFF site for more info.


Charlotte Daraio is a content writer and script reader from Naarm/Melbourne. She tries really, really hard to be funny. Her Twitter handle is @mournographic.

Charlotte Daraio