It’s nearly a year since Zoom became a household name brand, its boxy chat windows, variable resolution and capacity for technical glitches shaping how many communicated with friends, family and colleagues during a global pandemic — to the extent that “Zoom fatigue” is now the defining buzz term of 2021 so far. A gentle relationship study playing out entirely through the cramped, sterile rectangles of a virtual chat app, actor-director Natalie Morales’ freshman feature “Language Lessons” arrives just as our collective patience for such correspondence is worn threadbare, though it doesn’t romanticize the medium. Rather, this tender, slender story of a queer California widower (Mark Duplass) processing his grief through online Spanish classes with a Costa Rican stranger (Morales) ebbs and flows with the limitations, miscommunications and occasional candor of screen-based interaction.
“Language Lessons” is plainly a feat of quarantine-era production, with its two-actor, two-location, two-screen setup making it pretty much a model of what can be accomplished in lockdown conditions. Yet COVID itself plays no part in Morales and Duplass’ free-flowing, necessarily talky script, which could be set at any point in the recent past, and gives its characters other causes for physical or emotional isolation. That may give the film — which has its world premiere in the Berlinale Special program, before going on to SXSW — a measure of longevity for an audience disinclined to see their current anxieties reflected directly back at them on screen, even as it captures something of this moment in time, with a world oddly united in loneliness. Either way, it’s a film conceived at every level for the small, Zoom-weary screen.
For the film’s first quarter-hour, at least, it’s hard to imagine rustling up much sympathy for Adam (Duplass), a neurotic, middle-aged Oakland resident who inhabits a vast Architectural Digest spread with his little-seen husband Will (Desean Kevin Terry), and doesn’t do any discernible work for a living, but does have a rigid morning routine around their temperature-controlled swimming pool. Young Spanish instructor Cariño (Morales) begins the film peering into this plush setup as skeptically as we do, from the safe distance of her laptop all the way over in Costa Rica. Will has enlisted her services as a surprise gift to Adam, who is none too thrilled to find two paid-up years of Monday-morning Spanish classes shoehorned into his light schedule. The couple’s bickering over this, in full view of the bemused outsider, sounds a queasy note of exploitative entitlement, setting the awkward, stilted tone for their first lesson.
What a difference a week makes, as Cariño checks into their next lesson to find Adam incoherently dazed and out of sorts: Will is dead, and she’s the couple’s first acquaintance to find out. It’s a nightmare scenario that the script handles with a plausible blend of gaucheness and grace, as she attempts to talk a man she hardly knows into a state of calm, while he blearily clings to some semblance of human contact: the kind of accidentally intimate interaction that can bind two people for life, however haphazard the pairing. As Adam spirals through grief in its various pained stages, he and Cariño converse both directly and by exchanging bilingual video messages, like 21st-century penpals. While he treats her alternately as a friend, therapist and impartial sounding-board — initially oblivious to what crises she may be juggling in her own life — she flip-flops over just how much of this emotional labor she’s willing to share.
Films explicitly about the formation of friendships are rare, and Morales and Duplass have fashioned rather a perceptive one, adapting the push-pull dynamics of a romantic comedy to more delicate psychological terrain: The big questions here are less along the lines of how to get the girl than how to earn her trust. Whether or not there’s still an ambiguous quiver of sexual chemistry between them, meanwhile, is the kind of Rorschach blur that the film entrusts to viewers’ own perceptions and experiences. “Language Lessons” is most interesting when it treads in such gray areas, though the script succumbs to cuter, neater bonds as it goes along — not helped by dialogue that occasionally feels cribbed more from Twitterspeak than real life. “What’s the narrative you’ve created here?” Cariño asks Adam at one point — a line one hopes never to hear from an actual friend.
It’s the amiable, spontaneous rapport between the two actor-writers that tides “Language Lessons” through its moments of contrivance, and lends ballast to a film that (practically by design) serves up little of grand cinematic interest. Just as we’ve spent many a Zoom call scanning other people’s bookshelves for fragments of personality, minor details of decor and costume work to fill the gaps in two people we never completely get to know. Large corners of backstory remain unpainted on both sides, which seems less a failure of writing than an acknowledgement of how much life is lived between video calls, beyond the scope of the webcam — however much we’ve all tried to expand its reach in the last year. Some things about a person you only learn when the miles and pixels fall away.