Every once in a while, it’s nice to watch a quiet movie, with no special effects, no stunt people on fire, and no car chases. “Language Lessons” fits the bill perfectly.
It begins with Adam (Mark Duplass) being gifted a series of Spanish lessons by his husband. The teacher, who will work with him via video, is Cariño (Natalie Morales). He already has a decent grasp of conversational Spanish because he spent some years in Mexico when he was younger, so that’s the language of most of their early online encounters. One of the things I found amusing is that when he gets some grammar wrong or uses the wrong tense of a verb, she doesn’t always correct him — but the subtitles put the English translations of his errors in quotes.
From early on, the relationship between Cariño and Mark has an informal nature that isn’t typical of a teacher and student. And when tragedy strikes, it forms an undercurrent that runs through the rest of “Language Lessons.” But the script — co-written by Duplass and Morales, with her directing — doesn’t drag the drama into the dark for too long. Instead, there are the normal highs and lows of any relationship, as we get to watch these two adults growing closer despite their geographical distance and class differences. Or, rather, what Adam perceives in that regard, and assumptions he makes about Cariño’s personal life.
Because “Language Lessons” is framed entirely through Zoom/Skype calls, the movie doesn’t have the usual combination of camera angles and options. We only see the characters as they see each other, with no close-ups, master shots, or pans and zooms. To my surprise, that drew me in even more, as if not having them in the same room somehow added intimacy.
Mark Duplass and his brother Jay have built a nice independent industry for themselves, making quirky little films with small budgets (e.g. “Safety Not Guaranteed” and “The One I Love,” both of which are on my Movies You Might Not Know list), while still appearing in big budget projects (e.g. “The Morning Show,” “Zero Dark Thirty”). Mark is one of those always-reliable actors whose presence is often enough to get my attention.
So, too, is Natalie Morales, who has made a name for herself in TV shows like “Parks and Recreation” and “Dead To Me,” as well as movies like “Battle Of The Sexes” (as Rosie Casals) and “The Little Things.” She made her initial forays into feature directing in 2021 with “Plan B” and “Language Lessons.” When the latter debuted on the film festival circuit last fall, it received a lot of nominations and a few wins.
Unfortunately, during the pandemic, the movie didn’t make it into a lot of theaters, but it’s now on DVD and will start streaming on HBO Max this Sunday (May 1st).
I’m giving “Language Lessons” an 8.5 out of 10 — and adding it to the Movies You Might Not Know list, too.