Language Lessons Synopsis: A Spanish teacher (Natalie Morales) and her grieving student (Mark Duplass) develop an unexpected friendship during their virtual meetings. The film was made on Zoom during COVID-19.
While studios fight over blockbuster profits, Duplass Brothers Productions have keenly dug their nitch in the marketplace. Mark and Jay Duplass have transformed intimate low-budget indies into a legitimate brand, utilizing their success to produce similarly spirited efforts from other talents. Films like Blue Jay, Tangerine, and Skelton Twins resonated deeply with me through their intimate exploration of human dynamics.
The trend continues with Language Lessons – a modest Zoom-based drama filmed in the heart of the pandemic. As a labor of love from Mark and Natalie Morales (Morales wrote, directed, and stars in the film while Duplass co-writers and stars alongside her), the feel-good dramedy strikes enough genuine notes to mask its inherently slight appeals.
Several COVID-filmed efforts have tried (and mostly failed) to convey the isolating times without feeling mawkish in their pursuits. Language Lessons is one of the few to nail the challenge. Morales and Duplass’ screenplay intelligently dances away from the contrivances that plague indies of this elk. Whenever the script displays overly cutesy dynamics, the pair find honest ways to subversive the subgenre’s false cheerfulness (including a strong critique of the “manic pixie dream girl” trope).
The duo’s reliance on free-flowing, improvisational dialogue also helps build a genuine rapport without significant backstory. Few can create lively conversational energy like Duplass and company, with the deft screenplay allowing dynamics to play out in their own raw, naturalistic manner. Morales’ firm direction further encapsulates the film’s breezy charms. Her subdued touch, both in terms of steady framing and patient delivery, hits just the right notes during the film’s poignant frames.
The joys of Language Lessons come from its well-paired leads. Morales imbues Cariño’s instructive role with a radiant glow onscreen. It’s a joy to see the sturdy character actor take center stage in a role that showcases her impressive range and charisma. Mark Duplass delivers yet another tender performance as the down-on-his-luck student Adam, riding the character’s roller coaster of emotions through his intimate touch. Both actors play off each other like well-matched tennis partners, comfortably volleying sharp exchanges without missing a beat.
Language Lessons isn’t short on charm, but the film doesn’t quite nail its dramedy balance. The narrative, especially towards the latter half, forces a sense of melodrama that juxtaposes the first half’s easy-going appeals. The third act gets especially busy with its dramatic revelations, so much so that the conclusion feels bizarrely rushed in the whirlwind process. The lack of impactful emotions prevents the pleasant film from elevating its barebones shell compared to other Duplass efforts.
Language Lesson still won me over despite some inconsistencies. Morales and Duplass’s naturalistic collaboration elicits a relaxed deviation from the indie dramedy formula.
Language Lesson hits theaters on September 10th.
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