Inside Out Review: 'Language Lessons' Is More Than Just a COVID-Era Zoom Movie Directed by Natalie Morales
Starring Natalie Morales, Mark Duplass
Published May 31, 2021The COVID-era movie feels like its own genre at this point. These are films set in lockdown, whose plots deal with the pandemic, shot in one location or on Zoom. Indeed, films made using iPhone cameras or webcams aren't anything new, but these techniques are made even more prominent considering most people are confined to their homes. Shudder's horror film Host, for example, is shot on Zoom and focuses explicitly on the pandemic, as characters even wear their face masks while being chased down by a demon.
Language Lessons, on the other hand, is unlike other COVID-era Zoom movies, despite its similar backdrop. Filmed while its two stars, Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass, were stuck at home during quarantine, it refreshingly doesn't acknowledge what's going on outside. The film is, on the surface, about someone taking online classes. But more than that, it's a narrative about forging connection through technology. Its premise is one we can all relate to, and, by not bringing the pandemic into play, the film will likely retain its relevance long after the pandemic.
Morales' feature debut – co-written by both her and Duplass, who previously worked together on the HBO series Room 104 – looks at a connection that grows into something rarely explored on screen: a platonic love story between a man and a woman.
We've all heard the awkward — or just plain horrific — Zoom stories, and Language Lessons starts by playing with that same awkwardness. Adam (Duplass), having just been surprised with Spanish lessons by his husband Will, stands in front of his computer in his underwear as a stranger looks embarrassingly back at him. The lessons, he thought, were just for a day, but Cariño (Morales), an online Spanish teacher in Costa Rica, has been paid to give him one lesson a week for 100 weeks.
She becomes a part of his routine, and since Adam already knows Spanish from his youth, they can carry discussions in both languages. Morales and Duplass have written a film that's natural and conversational in its flow, even despite the sometimes choppy connection or fuzzy picture. That doesn't hinder the film at all, but instead, carries with it a realism that mirrors what we've had to deal with every day for the past year. You don't spend the runtime starring at the same picture either. The setting or room the characters are in changes to bring some variety and play with frames in varying sizes, allowing the audience to be drawn organically to where they want to look.
Soon, learning Spanish takes a back seat to language lessons of trust and communicating openly with another person. By their second class, there's a disconnect. Something is wrong with Adam as he experiences a sudden tragedy. He distances himself from Cariño a bit, pausing their lessons, but by still communicating through the video messages they send each other, she becomes a lifeline as she tries to comfort him, keep him busy and keep his mind off his grief. The clear bond forming between the two becomes complicated when it becomes clear that Cariño is also going through her own pain. But, unlike Adam, she refuses to confide in him and tries to avoid her situation. This leads to some very emotional and dramatic moments that show just how frightening vulnerability can be and how talented these two are as actors.
Making a film where only two actors appear in every single frame bears a lot of weight, but there is never a moment where the film isn't captivating. This has almost everything to do with the palpable chemistry between Morales and Duplass. Despite having a screen in between them, they somehow manage to have a chemistry of the same strength as characters in romance or comedy films who are in the same room together. Morales displays a boldness for experimentation, and Duplass is the perfect partner for that, if you consider other films he's written before, like Blue Jay, which was an experiment in improvisation.
While they both excel in their behind-the-scenes roles, it's clear they're both having fun on-screen as they laugh and joke around. You can't help but smile along with them, but when those incredibly honest and affecting conversations come about loss, love and their experiences with both, you're emotional with them, too.
Audiences will begin to feel the care, love and closeness that is quickly forming between these two people who have never even met in-person. It's a powerful, magical thing to have someone who will just listen. This interaction, even through video, helps Adam feel a little less lost. We can only hope for the same.
Inside Out festival runs online from May 27 to June 6. (Shout! Studios)