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Language Lessons
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by Jay Seaver

"Funny, timely, and earnest."
4 stars

I did not realize, going in, that "Language Lessons" was a movie that plays out on the characters' computer screens, and while there will probably a few more of those than usual coming out over the coming months,this one seems like it might wind up more than just a time capsule of the present moment. Even when the credits are rolling, it's not obvious whether this was specifically created to be a quarantine movie or not; odds are it's an influence, but it's good enough to stick even for those who don't want any reminders of what life is like now.

It starts with a gift to Adam (Mark Duplass) from his husband Will (Desean Terry) - 100 Spanish lessons online with CariƱo (Natalie Morales). Adam learned the language as a child, but hasn't had much opportunity to speak it of late, so this is mostly immersion and confidence-building. Adam is late to call in for a subsequent lesson because he's still in shock from what happened to Will the night before, leaving CariƱo in the awkward position of helping the panicked Adam cope. She checks in on him virtually over the next few weeks (he's in Oakland while she's in Costa Rica), and when they resume lessons, they're probably as much friends as teacher and student, which becomes awkward when it turns out CariƱo has her own issues she's dealing with.

The film is almost entirely built out of conversations between Adam and CariƱo or messages from one to another, and it's easy for a movie like this one, where the two lead actors are also writers, producers, and (in Natalie Morales's case) director, to meander as they give themselves room to try things and figure out the best way to put it together later. This film turns out to be impressively tight, though - they get to the thing driving the film quickly rather than spending a lot of time on a different setup so that the audience will feel an absence, and they don't mess around with a terribly protracted ending. Some scenes and sequences will play out at a relaxed pace, but it's a rare one that's just there for one thing, and it lets them build a story around the premise that lets them switch things up with hard turns just as the viewer is getting comfortable.

They can do that in part because Morales and her co-star/co-writer Mark Duplass are well aware of their particular strengths and charismas - she's smart and energetic, he's dry and laid-back - and how well they can play off each other without being in competition. Morales especially is terrific for how she is never blank while Duplass is letting everything spill out, giving the audience enough to speculate about her life outside of these conversations until it's time for her challenges to come closer to the fore. That's the trick of the movie: It initially seems built around what happens to Adam, only to dive into how nobody is just someone else's supporting character. Morales grabs the movie even as the focus tends to stay on Adam's point of view, and the pair do a nice job of keeping the characters on equal footing even though their interactions are never balanced in the way one might want them to be for storytelling symmetry.

It's a bit of an odd movie to watch in theaters, given how consciously Morales uses bandwidth issues and the like for verisimilitude, although she thankfully doesn't feel the need to show the UI or the like in the way that many making this sort of film do. It brings to mind how odd the editing of these movies can be, because Morales and editor Aleshka Ferrero seem kind of boxed in without many options beyond switching from who has the main screen and who has the inset, and there are moments when the film kind of stumbles trying to give the two equal weight in a scene. Morales deals with the seemingly-limited options well, though - you notice the medium, but mostly it reinforces rather than distracts.

More than anything, it's fun to see Duplass and Morales doing something like this: They're an eminently likable pair who are both comfortable at this scale, so it's a pleasure to be in their company and watch their characters work through things, and they're clever in how they find a way to talk about sudden loss and mostly connecting electronically without being overtly reminding the audience of current events. It's an impressive little movie that threads a needle that plenty of others with more to work with haven't managed.

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originally posted: 09/14/21 14:54:28
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