Home Film ‘Language Lessons’ Review – Zoom Gets its First Truly Great Movie | SXSW 2021

‘Language Lessons’ Review – Zoom Gets its First Truly Great Movie | SXSW 2021

by Frankie Gilmore
Mark Duplass and Natalie Morales making funny faces over Zoom as seen in the film Language Lessons.

With Language Lessons, mumblecore goes digital, joining the ranks of an all-new, immediately oversaturated Zoom genre. Call it Zoomcore if you will. In the wake of a post-COVID world, there was always going to be a wave of art exploring the pandemic and its profound effect on everything and everyone. There’s a sort of noxious sentiment that arises in times of strife, that the best art is derived from pain and suffering. That only in darkness can we really see the light.

There was a notion that this pandemic would bring out incredible art, that of which could not otherwise have been made. As we begin to see a future beyond this pandemic take shape and a few COVID-centered films have come and gone, it becomes apparent that art hasn’t gotten better, so much as it has changed. There has yet to be a film that you can say is truly better for the limitations this time has brought on it. That is until now.

With Natalie Morales’ directorial debut, the potential of socially-distanced, Zoom cinema feels fully realized. 

Language Lessons follows a Spanish teacher and her student, played respectively by director Natalie Morales and co-writer/producer Mark Duplass as they navigate Spanish lessons before they must also navigate their own hardships and personal tragedies, all via webcam. The premise is almost deceptively simple and going in, you could be forgiven for expecting something a bit hokey and contrived. What follows, however, is anything but, as the film excels in achieving a level of authenticity both technically and emotionally, with the two working hand-in-hand.

To work with a gimmick such as this, or really any other for that matter, you have to tie your presentation directly into the story at play. If you can’t justify your limitation as a genuine artistic choice then it just feels like a limitation. Language Lessons overcomes this hurdle effortlessly, as it becomes immediately clear that there is no other way to tell this story. 

Mumblecore dramedies laced with dark humor and a sort of ‘aw shucks’ sincerity are nothing new, but to tie it so specifically in reality and to actually force those genre quirks into the identity of your characters and larger film is completely new. These characters aren’t awkward solely in service of laughs, but because Zoom is super f*cking awkward. Natalie Morales lets these characters be hilarious in moments and unfunny in others, profoundly sincere in one place and totally cheesy in another.

Everything that Language Lessons is all about is an extension of the characters we watch through the entirety of its runtime. If the film had failed in making them feel real or the presentation accurate to life, absolutely nothing could have worked. But because it does feel tangible, everything else follows. Its flaws become indiscernible from the flaws of its characters and in that way, it may be one of the most truly authentic character studies I’ve seen committed to screen. 

So much of this film’s successes can be attributed to the writing and directing from Natalie Morales, but so too can that be said of its performances. Natalie Morales runs the gamut here, beginning as charming and kind, veering into awkward and eventually a bit unkind, then there and back again. It’s the kind of performance where nothing is held back because nothing can be when you’re staring directly into a camera.

In this Zoom format, false emotions register at the speed of light and true ones become truer, making you feel as if you’re on a call muted and watching other sides of two lives unfold. The same can be said for the truly sublime Mark Duplass, whose performance holds some of the film’s most heartbreaking moments, carrying himself with a quiet devastation and nuance that calls to mind the very real isolation and pain so many experienced (and are experiencing) in this pandemic.

And that’s exactly it with Language Lessons. Among its achievements, what stands tallest is that Natalie Morales and co. were able to make a film about life in a period of transformative pain and sadness, without ever needing to mention its real-world implications. We know about COVID and we understand why the film is presented the way it is. We don’t need films that portray the pandemic, so much as ones that listen to the current moment and say something about it. Things are bad. The world is scary and sometimes it can feel as if there’s little in the way of hope. Language Lessons serves as a gentle, kind reminder that when we connect with others, in whatever way that might be, there will always be hope. And that things will always get better. 

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Language Lessons was chosen to play at the 2021 Berlinale and SXSW Film Festivals

Check out more of our 2021 festival coverage here!

Follow writer Frankie Gilmore on Twitter: @yahboyantman

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