SXSW 2021: ‘Language Lessons’ Teaches Closeness Through Video Calls

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Language Lessons

With COVID-19 on everyone’s minds, there has been a resurgence of screen-based films. While others have used the screen to bring horror, Language Lessons, the directorial debut for Natalie Morales, aims to bring an understanding of how connections are formed even without physical closeness.

The film, which was also co-written by Morales and Mark Duplass, celebrated its North American premiere at the virtual 2021 SXSW Film Festival. Utilizing both English and Spanish, the film primarily stars Morales and Duplass as its leads, whith appearances by Desean Terry and Christine Quesada. And with a quick 91-minute runtime, every minute is used to build emotion both between the characters communicating in the video call and the audience.

The premise of the film is simple enough. In Language Lessons, a Spanish teacher who goes by Cariño (Morales) and her student Adam (Duplass) develop an unexpected friendship. Told through weekly video calls, Adam and Cariño come into each other’s lives thanks to Adam’s husband buying him 2 years’ worth of language lessons as a way to get used to being home. Focused on immersion, Cariño has one rule: Adam must speak Spanish at all times.

Based out of Costa Rica, Cariño keeps Adam focused, pushing him past his comfort zone when it comes to language. On the other hand, Adam drives Cariño to become more open, sharing parts of herself she otherwise tries to hold close. But, when tragedy strikes their lives at different times, the two realize that the friendship that they’ve built is a lot more important than either of them had admitted.

The film finds the humor in communication barriers, first those in regards to language and second, those created by communicating across countries through a video call. For the first, we get notes on language like the misuse of “embarazado” by most non-Spanish speakers. What seems like it would mean “embarrassed” really means “pregnant.” A common mistake that anyone who has learned Spanish has made or anyone who has heard first-time speakers knows. It helps to build the first hurdle for the two to overcome.

The immersive learning removes English. And while we may not think of it, it also removes things like nuance and humor, at least how English-speakers think about it. This is explored when Adam tries to translate a joke from English to Spanish word for word, and more subtly when he asks for translations for words with no exact equivalent.

There are also small glitch effects used throughout the film, such as lags that make you feel like you’re in the call observing the two leads. Additionally, the “camera off” function is used in select moments, allowing characters to hide parts of themselves from each other.

But where there is comedy in these moments, there is also drama to be created. Especially when the barriers compound on each other. The things that drive comedy are also the things that drive emotions like sadness and love. In the film, Duplass and Morales’ relationship is built on a deep empathy, and in a way, the kind that you can only get from strangers.

That said, Cariño and Adam’s relationship, while loving, is never classified as romantic. While the film’s ending may leave it open to interpretation, the fact that Adam is gay serves as a way for the audience to understand their deep emotion is platonic. It’s a friendship, and a deep one, driven only by online communication.

While I wish the film’s ending had hammered home stronger that it was platonic, maybe that openness is the point. The love they vocalize and share can be misconstrued by what you bring in. And maybe that’s what happened with me. Intimate moments don’t always have to be romantic, and friendships don’t always have to be based on physically meeting a person.

Language Lessons succeeds by tapping into a cultural moment where our relationships have been pushed into the virtual world. While there are moments where the film could have sped up, namely between pauses and blank screen time, it is a success nonetheless. Language Lessons showcases that closeness can be driven by a Zoom call and a willingness to be open with the person on the other end.

Language Lessons was screened at the virtual 2021 SXSW Film Festival.

Language Lessons
  • 9/10
    Rating - 9/10
9/10

TL;DR

Language Lessons succeeds by tapping into a cultural moment where our relationships have been pushed into the virtual world. While there are moments where the film could have sped up, namely between pauses and blank screen time, it is a success nonetheless. Language Lessons showcases that closeness can be driven by a Zoom call and a willingness to be open with the person on the other end.