Int’l Critics Line: Todd McCarthy On ‘Language Lessons’ – Berlin

Jeremy Mackie

Whether by accident or design, the ultra-low-budget Language Lessons feels like a definitive film for the Covid-19 era, as the two main actors never appear in the same shot together until the very end. Seemingly created on two computers, this exceedingly modest tale of a Spanish-language instructor and pupil who meet online becomes more genially engaging as it goes along, although it never aims very high other than as a technical experiment that more or less succeeds. It plays just fine on home equipment and it’s hard to imagine that there would be anything to be gained from experiencing this Berlinale Special world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival on the big screen.


The script by indie stalwart Mark Duplass and director-actress Natalie Morales is entirely restricted to the chats the two characters, Adam and Cariño, have in the course of online language lessons bought for the former by his partner — 100 of them, no less. Adam and his mate Will are self-described gay Oakland yuppies who, from the visual evidence, are quite wealthy, a lifestyle quite new to Adam, who can get by with basic conversational Spanish.

Lesson two brings the news that Will has died, hit by a car. Given that Adam is in something close to shock, it’s hard to imagine he’s even taking the class, but within a week or two he’s engaging with Cariño pretty well, sitting in a tux at the piano and inviting instruction in the proper uses of the verbs “ser” and “estar.”

As the sessions continue, one can begin to feel the tickle of an emerging comedy-drama in the couple’s interchanges. They joke around some, Adam’s usage improves a bit and they share back-story info: She was born in Cuba, moved to Costa Rica and then Miami, while he was formerly married to a woman and then had been with Will for five years.

But the budding friendship comes to a screeching halt when Cariño turns up online one week with nasty scratches on her face. When Adam inquires about it, she insists that they’ve been wasting time and should concentrate strictly on grammar; they should be more professional, she insists, putting a lid on their burgeoning pal-ship.

But on his birthday, she calls again, charmingly drunk and playing the guitar; she’s fun when she’s tipsy. More intimacies are discussed, the relationship has certainly progressed well beyond that of teacher and student, but she’s still got issues and they both have to work out what’s actually going on here, and from a distance. As the film approaches its end, which comes at a just long enough 91 minutes, it must decide whether it’s going to identify as an unresolvable drama between two conflicted people or a romantic comedy in which unlikely partners give life together a whirl.

It’s a simple and minor affair done in a very modestly experimental manner. But it does speak to its times, both in the way the two protagonists exclusively communicate electronically rather than in person, and haltingly as they sort out their emotional and sexual issues for themselves. A small film with modest virtues, Language Lessons is nonetheless distinctive enough to make a certain impression and perhaps even stay in the mind.

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