Thursday, March 18, 2021

SXSW with Abe: Language Lessons

I’m thrilled to be covering SXSW for the third time. This year, I’m not in Austin, but watching films virtually and reviewing them as soon as I can.

Language Lessons
Directed by Natalie Morales
Narrative Spotlight

You can only learn so much about another person through a camera or computer screen. That’s one of the top criticisms of at-home education that’s been the necessary default during a global pandemic, with those opposed arguing that it can’t possibly replicate the experience of in-person learning and being surrounded by other students. Those who live on different sides of the country or even the world are satiated in part by video calls, but nothing can match the feeling of standing in front of someone and hugging them. There is still great potential in online communication, as marvelously shown in this wonderful two-performer production.

Adam (Mark Duplass) has been given a gift by his husband Will (Desean Terry): one hundred Spanish lessons with Cariño (Natalie Morales). The already mostly fluent Adam, who lives a lavish life of luxury in a giant Oakland home, is supposed to turn on his camera each week for two years to connect with the Costa Rica-based Cariño to improve his mastery of the language. When Adam experiences an unexpected loss, the nature of his conversations with Cariño change, transforming preplanned exercises into an entirely more personal dynamic.

This film is exceptional for a number of reasons. While it was made during a pandemic and for the most part features two actors on separate screens for the entirety of its runtime, it’s not one of the many projects that will clearly trace back to this moment in time. This kind of online extracurricular course does exist in this form, and its format merely serves to link two people in two different places as they come together over a shared interest in language. Most impressively, this film manages to remain completely interesting throughout its hour-and-a-half runtime despite being little more than a dialogue between two people looking at each other through their only sometimes crystal-clear computer screens.

This is the directorial debut for Morales, an actress who has impressed in recurring roles on “Parks and Recreation” and “Dead to Me,” as well as anchoring a decent sitcom, “Abby’s.” Here, she is full of personality and depth opposite a typically invested and dryly charming Duplass, and the two make for a stellar onscreen pair. This relationship feels like one that might truly exist, evolving over time and shifting between humorous anecdotes to serious exploration of boundaries. What may be most charming about it is its use of language, with Adam trying ardently to practice his admittedly grammar-imperfect Spanish in as much of their conversations as possible. This film is funny, engrossing, and heartwarming, an optimistic indication of the power of storytelling without the need for all the usual cinematic bells and whistles.


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