Berlinale 2021: ‘Language Lessons’ Review

Luigi Barraza Cárdenas considers this heartfelt drama, which screened in the Berlin Special category.

In a collective effort from the film industry to cope with the pandemic, the Berlinale has kicked off digitally. Language Lessons, a small dramedy with unapologetic mumblecore genetics, tells an affable story about finding friendship in unexpected places. The film uses an interesting technological gimmick that is either intentionally timely or unintentionally ironic, with somewhat uneven results. However, some intimate moments and one charming performance manage to create an overall enjoyable, if admittedly modest, experience.

As part of the Berlinale Special, the world premiere of Language Lessons sees Latina actor-writer Natalie Morales in her directorial debut. ‘¡Hola!’ Is the first thing we hear and it sets the tone for what will be a conventional and friendly ride. The film is creatively framed as an assemblage of video calls across computer and phone screens. We are introduced to Adam (Mark Duplass), a middle-aged man who lives in California with his (always off-screen) husband Will. Across the screen is Spanish teacher Caridad (Natalie Morales), affectionately known as Cariño (seriously, her name is Darling!). Amidst some confusion, it turns out that Adam’s husband has bought him online Spanish lessons as a surprise gift. Cariño is determined to make the lessons work, despite Adam’s initial reluctance towards this bizarre but well-intentioned gift. The nature of their digital relationship takes an unexpected turn when Adam’s life gets shaken by tragedy. What blossoms in the aftermath is a charming collection of interactions that both Morales and Duplass navigate with charisma and comedic skill.

The endless string of video calls that makes up the film inspires empathy but feels a little perverse; a cinematic extension of our pandemic lifestyles that add to our digital fatigue. Watching it from a personal device both enhances the trick and provides meta-commentary on the current nature of our relationships. Sans reference to COVID-19, the video calls are explained as a consequence of distance. However, the use of this format begs the question as to how effective it would be in a movie theatre. Furthermore, one can hardly imagine why anyone would subject themselves to such distance-learning torture without it being absolutely necessary. The plot is constructed in chapters that allude to the language lessons and are meant to be metaphors about what is happening on screen. The fragmentation benefits the film’s structure and creates a good rhythm for the story, but the metaphors come off as muddled and shallow.

The film’s intimate story is carried exclusively by Morales and Duplass. Morales is effortlessly charming and her performance holds the whole affair together. She manages to bring a realness to Cariño that exudes confidence through her mastery of both languages. However, the character’s origin is inconsistently crafted, since her Spanish is not flawless enough for someone who supposedly comes from a Cuban-Costa Rican background. Contrasted with her perfect English, the ‘late upbringing in Miami’ explanation seems unlikely, although a bit more plausible. Mark Duplass deserves all of my respect for diving into a bilingual film with his broken yet surprisingly fluent Spanish. However, his performance leaves much to be desired. This is particularly evident in the more dramatic scenes, where he frequently stumbles between parody and overacting. We feel empathy for Adam, but only because of his emotional struggles.

Now, let’s talk about the Spanish, which I found both very refreshing and occasionally frustrating. As a native Spanish speaker, the missteps became increasingly hard to forgive as Language Lessons progressed. Despite my best efforts to wear my suspension of disbelief mask, I was still bothered by the film’s simultaneous attention to and neglect of linguistic details. However, I understand that only certain native speakers will cringe at the inconsistencies, while other international audiences will be totally undisturbed or happily unaware.

The film is conceived bilingually, I loved the way the film moves back and forth between English and Spanish, thereby constructing a bilingual atmosphere. It casts a spotlight on the lives of a racial minority that is severely underrepresented in the US (Latinxs), especially in the film industry. The attention to colloquialisms, idioms, and other linguistic nuances is brilliantly crafted to comedic effect. It’s funny because it’s true. As a native Spanish speaker, I can confirm the importance of these nuances and tensions, which can lead to hilariously uncomfortable situations. My Angeleno cousin embarrassed me once by screaming ‘me embarazaste enfrente de todos‘, which literally translates to ‘you made me pregnant in front of everyone’. The film has also saved me from a definite faux pas at my next Cuban dinner. The subtitles are well executed, deftly translating the hidden meanings of phrases and mistakes. However, the filmmakers eventually fall into the same trap they so gleefully mock: visually and phonetically, ‘Lecciones de Lenguaje’ might seem like the best way to translate Language Lessons, but like ‘embarazado’, it is both inadequate and incorrect.

In the end, I was pleasantly surprised at how easy to watch Language Lessons is. It is a small film, quiet and unambitious, yet somehow it works. The film is moderately successful at illustrating how friendships can evolve through time to create meaningful connections. It also explores the barriers and challenges that come with making new friends in adulthood. Its observations of grief are poignant, but sometimes too obvious to be satisfying. Morales and Duplass make some superficial attempts to tackle relevant questions about race, class, and gender, but offer no proper reflection about the wider implications of these dynamics. I do not foresee myself revisiting Language Lessons anytime soon, but for what it’s worth, this simple piece of zeitgeisty filmmaking nicely showcases Morales’ wide range of talents.

Language Lessons premiered at Berlinale 2021 and will be screened as part of the South by Southwest Festival on March 17th.

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