In their ongoing quest to keep movie audiences engaged, filmmakers continue to find new ways to keep up with changing tastes
A couple of the best examples include Janicza Bravo’s “Zola” (2021) and Sean Baker’s “Tangerine” (2015), both with strong queer vibes, and incorporating modern tech.
Movies utilizing computer screens as a means of communication are nothing new and are quite popular in the horror genre. There’s nothing scary about “Language Lessons” (Shout! Studios). Quite the opposite, in fact. An intimate, essentially two-person story that balances comedy and tragedy, it is presented via Facetime and video messages, and speaks directly to the heart.
Will (Desean Terry, whom we never see except in pictures) surprises his husband Adam (Mumblecore pioneer Mark Duplass, who co-wrote the screenplay, and also had a gay experience in Lynn Shelton’s “Humpday”) with online Spanish immersion lessons. One hundred weekly lessons at the price of $1,000 have been bought and paid for.
The instructor’s name is Cariño (Natalie Morales, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay) and she is based in Costa Rica. Adam and Will live in a huge house with a pool and other amenities in Oakland, California. Right from the start, we are made aware of the economic disparities. Once Adam gets over the initial shock of the surprise, he begins his first lesson.
Be prepared, because a big change occurs with the second lesson. Adam, who is still in bed, “arrives” late. Cariño senses that something is wrong and Adam reveals that Will, who was out for a late-night run, was hit by a car and killed the night before. This scene, including Adam’s delayed freak-out, sets the tone for the rest of the movie.
Through a series of video messages Adam and Cariño establish a pattern of compassion that goes beyond that of teacher and student. Eventually, Adam is ready to pick up where they left off with the lessons. The lessons are, of course, just a device for the characters, as well as the audience, to become better acquainted.
We witness Adam going through the phases of mourning, which include telling stories about himself and Will. Cariño reveals that she was born in Havana, Cuba, but spent much of her life in Miami (hence the lack of accent, something about which Adam remarks) and relocated to Costa Rica. She is also a divorcee.
As with every new relationship, even those online, cracks begin to show. Before long, a strain develops between Adam and Cariño, especially after she makes a late-night drunken Facetime call. But fear not, an unexpectedly contrived resolution is close at hand.
In English and Spanish (with English subtitles), “Language Lessons” is cleverly divided into sections with headings such as “immersion,” “comprehension” and “context” (in both languages). Duplass has become a better writer and actor since his mumblecore days. “Language Lessons” is the second of Morales 2021 full-length features as director and she proves herself to be more than up to the task, and a filmmaker with a promising future.
Gregg Shapiro is the author of seven books including the expanded edition of his short story collection How to Whistle (Rattling Good Yarns Press, 2021). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBTQ+ and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.