There’s no two ways about it, last year was utterly depressing when it came to movies. Part of it, obviously, was the effects of the COVID pandemic all but shuttering the film industry, with serious doubts lingering about its ability to survive. But even what little we did get was definitely on the down side of things. Comedian Bill Maher summed it up rather succinctly in one of his “New Rules” segments after the Oscars, where he noted that basically all of the Best Picture nominees were sob stories of some kind. “Try to be entertained,” he mocked, noting how Nomadland, Minari, Promising Young Woman, and all the rest just beat you over the head with human tragedy, compounding our collective ennui and sadness when audiences were begging for a bit of escapism. Now unlike Maher, I still appreciated the artistic merit of all those films, and there were still uplifting moments to be had, but it’s undeniable that 2020 was a shit show in a ton of ways, including cinema.
This year, however, the industry has undergone a self-correction, in that we’re getting a slew of movies that not only deal with the direct effects of the pandemic, but ones that reinforce our own humanity in the face of adversity and celebrate the crucial connections that define our lives. We’re seeing a lot more grounded stories about personal relationships and intimate character studies. The best films have a newfound emphasis on showing lived-in perspectives and challenging audiences to consider unexplored contexts for the lives of others. It’s led, I think, to a more positive year from a cinematic standpoint, even in stories centered on tragedy and human misery, because the emphasis is on the human part, not the misery.
We now have another fine entry to this year’s pantheon with Language Lessons, one of the simplest films imaginable from a production standpoint, uniting this novel empathetic focus with one of the newer presentation conceits in the form of a “social media movie.” Written by its two stars, Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass (with brief off-screen dialogue from Desean Terry and Christine Quesada), and directed by Morales, the film takes place entirely on a video chat app (similar to Skype or Zoom, but not explicitly named for the sake of saving licensing money), and yet the virtual distance only aids in creating a deep intimacy between the two main characters.
Duplass plays Adam, a happily married man who has recently come into wealth. His husband, Will (the offscreen Terry), has surprised him by buying him 100 online Spanish lessons with Cariño (Morales), a tutor in Central America. Adam is already conversational in Spanish, and enjoyed learning it as a kid, so Will bought him this gift so he could immerse himself fully in the language and become fluent.
The first lesson is a delightful bit of comic awkwardness as Adam and Cariño sort of feel each other out, getting comfortable with one another, particularly the stunned Adam, who literally walked into his living room in his bathrobe to see a stranger’s face on a computer screen. The two have instant chemistry despite being in two completely different locations, and they develop a swift and charming rapport. Duplass and Morales’ inflections and body language – even within the restricted confines of the screen – are expressive enough that I was tempted to ignore the English subtitles and just try to pick things up contextually. I’ve tried to learn Spanish a couple of times before, and if I’m being generous, I might have a kindergarten-level understanding, and most of that is through knowledge of linguistics and word roots rather than the language itself. The early minutes of this film shape it up to be a fun bit of character-building with cheeky comedy and the love of the spoken word. Suffice to say, I’m on board, and that’s even before a hysterical exchange where Adam confuses the Spanish words for “embarrassed” and “pregnant.”
But as they say, looks can be deceiving, and this movie is no exception. Before you know it, the story takes a drastic turn, throwing both Adam and Morales along a path from which there is no extrication. That initial bit of lighthearted friendliness instead becomes an unwitting crutch for both parties to cope with the harshest of situations, leaning into each other well beyond the boundaries of the student-teacher relationship (which Cariño tries in vain to reassert at several points), in order to come to an understanding that transcends language itself.
This is the ultimate cleverness of the film, as Morales makes sure that everything we see is intentional, but ambiguous. She brilliantly dares us to draw conclusions about the background and the fore based on what we see and our own inherent biases, all while she – as director and character – subvert them with ease. Some of these moments are less heavy than others, for example the initial views of Adam’s house which suggest long-term wealth. But as he explains, he only recently found success and came from a poor background, with Will being the one who was more well off when they met. On the heavier side, an accidental glimpse of Cariño with a black eye sends Will into a spiral of fear and assumptions about how it happened, never considering the actual context and how his nurturing instincts towards her might be doing more harm than good.
It’s absolutely fantastic how well Morales and Duplass craft this narrative to challenge our expectations while also developing this beautiful friendship. Like Together Together earlier this year, the film stands as a testament to the power of platonic love, and ultimately creates a truly heartwarming experience because it recognizes how essential a friendship can be, even if we don’t recognize our own need for it sometimes. I’ve been a fan of both of these actors for a long time, especially Morales, who is finally, finally getting her due in this industry, and this movie is an exact showcase as to why. There’s this gorgeous message of, “Like it or not, you made a friend” that pervades the entire thing, showing how empathy can triumph even against our own reticence. And coming out of one of the darkest years in human history – to say nothing of cinematic history – it’s a message we all need. This is one of the best feel-good movies of the year.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Who do you think is the most underrated actor working today? Have you ever confused two words to such a hilarious degree, even in English? Let me know!