Berlinale 2021 Review: A Connection Blossoms Under Trying Circumstances in Natalie Morales’ “Language Lessons”

It’s notable that “incómodo” — uncomfortable — is the first word Adam (Mark Duplass) can remember in Spanish beyond a general greeting in “Language Lessons,” perhaps resurfacing so clearly from last time he had to speak the language in high school because he finds himself thrust into an uneasy conversation with Cariño (Natalie Morales) over Zoom, unaware that his partner Will has bought him a hundred-lesson package with the Costa Rica-based teacher to become fluent, though at first it seems more like a gag gift when Will doesn’t tell Adam the camera’s running when he first connects the student with his new instructor.

As it turns out, Adam isn’t in great need of learning the language – once his memory is jogged, he speaks more than enough to get by, but to watch “Language Lessons” now is to be all too conscious of the conditions under which it was conceived as the communication tool of choice during the COVID-19 pandemic — Zoom — is the one that’s interrogated. It’s likely for the best that the coronavirus is never invoked, but not only is it hard to imagine the drama being made without its two very busy principal actors having some unexpected time on their hands, but it’s provocative for what it captures about the moment when Morales, in her capacity as the film’s director, thankfully spares the audience of technical glitches as an expression of the awkwardness of the new normal, but gets instead at something less obvious in how the mirage of face-to-face interaction has produced a screwy sense of intimacy where everyone from complete strangers to longtime acquaintances have been inviting each other into their homes yet the boundaries have grown blurrier as far as letting each other into their lives.

Adam has quite a nice house, “muy grande” as he concedes when pressed by Cariño early on, and the Spanish sessions fit into a schedule that regularly includes brunch, yoga and a bottle of wine after 4 pm, but when tragedy strikes just a few lessons in, the fact that Cariño calls Adam at an inopportune time is the start of a potentially unhealthy road the two embark on together when rather than serving as a teacher, Cariño is called upon to be a bit of a therapist who has issues of her own to work out. The pivotal incident may not be entirely convincing in its execution – the tone of it doesn’t entirely sit right and you may wonder why Adam would leave his video chat on in such an instance – but it’s an effective means to an end when it explores Adam and Cariño’s conflicting impulses of the commitment they feel towards helping each other out in what appears to be a time of need versus the natural instincts of self-preservation that censor their exchanges, made even more complicated by the assumptions they’ve made from what they can see.

“Language Lessons” is the latest beneficiary of Duplass wanting to subvert the overly friendly and earnest on-screen persona he’s built up over the years, in demand to play the doting on-screen husband in projects where he isn’t the predominant creative force, but always eager to investigate whether it’s to be trusted as a writer (as he is here with Morales). While there aren’t the body bags Duplass’ character left behind in the “Creep” films, there’s a savagery to how the film looks at Adam’s unctuousness as a form of toxic self-affirmation when there are increasing hints that Cariño is in as much of a dire predicament as he is and too far away to help in any practical way, his offers of assistance can cross over into invasions of privacy. Morales trusts in herself and Duplass enough to let the film live largely on the performances and there are some small subtle choices of music and screen size that serve the dynamics of the relationship well. Ultimately, “Language Lessons” find the ways in which words can fail us in times of uncertainty, but expresses itself with impressive clarity.

“Language Lessons” will screen at the Berlinale Film Festival and will next screen virtually at SXSW.