“Language Lessons” opens with what has become our new normal, with two people connecting via a Zoom meeting. But it’s more serendipitous than your typical virtual meet up, since Adam (Mark Duplass) had no idea his husband had given him the gift of Spanish lessons with Cariño (Natalie Morales)…for the next two years.
So begins a very unusual friendship in even more ways than it initially appears, one that’s more in the style of a romcom, even if we know it’ll be platonic from the onset. There’s a certain, very refreshing awareness that extends throughout “Language Lessons,” which never loses sight of how it’s constantly on the verge of embracing some very unfortunate tropes, especially once Adam suffers a tragedy in his life, one that makes him lean on Cariño more than he initially would have. That said, Adam doesn’t need a tragedy to ask Cariño about topics that don’t involve him, or to outright address their differences, not just in location, but in privilege and power.
In such a dynamic, white guilt is pretty much a given, but there’s also an admirable forthrightness in how Adam, an Oakland resident, acknowledges the difference his money and his whiteness makes in his life, which results in the kind of privilege Cariño can’t access, both as a woman of color and as a Costa Rican. But everything changes when characters who have traditionally been objects become subjects, and “Language Lessons” likewise benefits from having Natalie Morales not just as co-writer with Duplass, but as a director.
The result is that a character who would typically be depicted as all-knowing and endlessly giving is alternately friendly, secretive, joyous, and more than occasionally, a bit of a liar. In other words? Cariño is a person, and not just when it’s convenient for the plot, or just Adam. For the people playing them, this was clearly a collaboration in more than just IMDB credits, with Duplass and Morales sharing a chemistry that goes beyond borders, class, race, and virtual constraints. It makes their conversations, which delve into everything from music to the very real sense of loss that permeates this and many a film made during the past year, feel that much more raw and believable.
Mark Duplass has long established his capability in finding transcendence from everyday circumstances as unofficial mumblecore royalty, but like many an indie film genre, it’s mostly been defined by whiteness. So it’s nice to see a person of color not only make their own mark, but form a believable on-screen friendship that’s defined by equality against all odds, which include the film’s vey concept. Morales has had a steadily successful career as an actress, and more recently has just as quietly built up her director bonafides, and hopefully “Language Lessons” is a sign of a promising new(ish) direction.