During the pandemic, I volunteered in tutoring English to non-native students. At orientation, a veteran tutor had said, “The best thing to hear is when a student makes a joke in English. That’s when you know that they get it.”
There can be so much structural dissection in comedy that it feels foolish to ascertain the ways that a joke works. It is not so much a language in that there is correct grammar and verbiage to use; sometimes it relies on timing, comprehension, and a kind of conviction that the punchline will come through. In Natalie Morales’ Language Lessons, a story about two strangers’ uncertain bonding, we are compelled to believe that beautiful things can grow in the strangest places.
The opening scene is familiar territory for those who experienced the oft-too-openness of someone’s webcam-keyhole into their private lives. Cariño (Morales) is a young teacher who learns that she will be teaching a hundred Spanish lessons to Adam (Mark Duplass). The surprise, to both Cariño and Adam, is orchestrated by Adam’s husband, Will (an off-camera Desean Terry). Instead of a normal introduction, Cariño patiently stands by on Zoom as Adam, in his bathrobe, is shocked by his gift and then chastises his husband in the way that couples do. Marriage, if you will.
Adam actually speaks fluently but had previously expressed to Will that he wanted to reach the same level of mastery that he had when he was a kid. Straight away, Cariño and Adam get along in the way that destined friends should, and it seems like the next ninety-nine should be a breezy gateway into a great, long-lasting friendship. However, the life differences between the two are stark; Adam’s wide rooms and spacious pool can be mistaken for one of those fake Zoom backgrounds, while Cariño’s clothes are in plain sight. Adam, as well as the audience, might make implicit notes about Cariño’s life and her choices to keep mum about sharing certain things. Eventually, personal issues bubble underneath the lessons (including the lightning-bolt event where Will dies by the second lesson), but first: laughter.
The Zoom technique in cinema could have been difficult to follow if it hadn’t been for our practicing in using it during the pandemic, but the movie naturally adapts to its unique communication without making it weird or pressing the “This is us now!” schtick. Morales smartly avoids repetitive Zoom sessions to drive the story; the two characters often send each other messages that spotlight individual humor and vulnerability without needing the regular two-person conversational exposition. The unfortunate faltering is the heaviness of friend-intimacy that comes in later. As they become closer, Cariño becomes uncomfortable and communication becomes miscommunication or, sometimes, no communication. This hurdle is somewhat expected to happen, and because the film has to rely so much on dialogue, some of their conversations in which Cariño verbally fends off Adam sounds harsher than it would have to be than if they could make mistakes in their physical presences. Friendship, if you will.
Before you have to ask, of course the film is funny. Morales and Duplass are adept in English, Spanish, and hilarity, which arms them with an array of clever-silly jokes that I haven’t seen before in recent times. Duplass approaches his character with a humble gentleness, which could be hard to achieve when he, a Creep, has a couple of Zoom scenes subjected to dark lighting and slightly-downward angles. Morales, who I’ve generally associated as an actress of recurring character roles, also directed Plan B, which was released on Hulu earlier this year. If directing is the road she’s trekking on, I can’t wait to see what she can do with an ensemble or a heavily anticipated script.
dir. Natalie Morales
Now playing at Kendall Square Cinema!