By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 9/11/21 – Last evening, I watched Natalie Morales’ Language Lessons (USA, 2021), an American dramatic film that encapsulates the era of Zoom and the way that COVID has impacted the way we connect and socialize. The film is currently playing at the Landmark Theatres in West Los Angeles and at several Laemelle theatres around town. Directed by Natalie Morales and written in collaboration with her co-star Mark Duplass, this charming and award-winning comedy follows a Spanish teacher and her student whose online connection takes on far more importance than either could have anticipated. This is a platonic romcom for the zoom era. Films explicitly about the formation of friendships are rare, and Morales and Duplass have fashioned rather a perceptive one.
For his 45th birthday, a well-off Californian Adam (Mark Duplass) receives a surprise gift from his choreographer partner: 100 weekly Spanish lessons with Cariño (Natalie Morales), a vivacious expat who teaches virtually from her home in Costa Rica. Adam’s unconvinced at first; a self-described “creature-of-habit,” he’s unsure about where or how this new element will fit into his carefully-structured routine. But after unexpected events turn his life upside down, Cariño becomes a lifeline he didn’t know he needed, and a complicated emotional bond develops. Language Lessons debuted at the Berlin Film Festival in 2021, where it received the Teddy Award for Best LGBTQ film, although it is only its background story that makes it a “gay” film. Adam (Mark Duplass) lives in an exceptionally fine house in the Oakland Hills with his married partner (Desean Terr), who seems to have been very successful with his dance company. Their relationship of five years resulted in a marriage of one year before something tragic happens to Desean (who we never actually see in the film).
Only two sessions into his Zoom Spanish lessons with Cariño, he is lying in bed, agonizing over a personal loss and Cariño tries to buoy him up. The online relationship develops in fits and starts, but it grows. Upending classic meet-cute tropes, this clever and unassuming film effortlessly shifts between comedy and pathos, echoing the ups and downs of life. Bittersweet, honest and fresh, Language Lessons is a disarmingly moving exploration of friendship and connection. The acting is fresh and the script engaging and humorous.
Shout! Studios has acquired North American rights to Language Lessons, the drama that marks the feature directing debut of Natalie Morales. The pic, which had its world premiere at this year’s Berlin Film Festival and won an audience award at SXSW, also fronted FrameLine in San Francisco and was featured in the recent Outfest in Los Angeles. The Duplass Brothers Productions pic was shot with a small crew during the pandemic in Los Angeles and Costa Rica. Mel Eslyn produced it, and Morales, Duplass and Jay Duplass are executive producers. ICM Partners negotiated the deal for Duplass Brothers Productions with Shout’s Jordan Fields, Julie Dansker and Steven Katz.
Natalie Morales is an alum of Parks and Recreation and previously worked with Mark Duplass on Room 104. Recently she attracted some attention by “coming out” during Pride month. “I don’t like labeling myself, or anyone else, but if it’s easier for you to understand me, what I’m saying is that I’m queer,” she wrote on Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls website. “What queer means to me is just simply that I’m not straight. That’s all. It’s not scary, even though that word used to be really, really scary to me.” Morales went on to clarify her views: The reason I decided to share this with you and with the world is because even though me telling you I’m queer might not be a big deal these days, things are still pretty bad out there for people like me. There are gay concentration camps in Chechnya where people are being tortured right this second. In our very country, 49 people were killed and 58 people were wounded just last year because they were dancing in a gay club. Our safe spaces are not safe. I think it’s important that I tell you that this familiar face you see on your TV is the Q part of LGBTQ, so that if you didn’t know someone who was queer before, you do now.”