This sincerely felt, fundamentally misguided film amounts to a lockdown exercise for bored actors. Natalie Morales directs, co-writes and stars as a Spanish teacher, Cariño (alluding to the semantics of care), who gives online language lessons to a rich, white guy called Adam (Mark Duplass, who also co-wrote the script). The relative wealth disparity and racial difference between the two characters is explicitly dealt with, which offers a degree of honest self-knowledge, kindly put, but likewise reveals an artless sensibility that dominates proceedings.
Adam has had lessons bought for him by his doting husband, Will (Desean Terry). He’s at first embarrassed and reluctant to take part but inevitably softens to the idea, striking up a friendship with Cariño, one which apparently traverses their distant geography and contrasting life experiences. The entirety is presented through video calls and recorded messages: the viewer alternately glimpses the cramped office within which one works and the palatial home in which the other lives. There’s a galling immediacy to the vulgar splendour of Adam’s house and, though this is awkwardly referred to, it isn’t sufficiently ironised or interrogated.
Purportedly shocking instances are peppered throughout; in fact, the plot is inelegantly pockmarked with hilarious tragedy. This is partly because the filmmakers do not trust the limited format they’ve devised, so they compensate for the generally fixed tableaux with outlandish and inexplicable events of death, violence and illness. The self-help manual quality of the script does the actors few favours: the dialogue scenes are filled with banal affectations and lazy gestures at self-awareness. Just because a character mentions “white saviour” guilt doesn’t mean it’s sufficiently depicted or analysed, particularly when the narrative carries along those precise lines with impunity.
There’s little actual language barrier to speak of, as both characters are mostly eloquent in Spanish and English, and their ability to process grief and history is played out through forced exposition. The précis is that language learning tends to self-revelation. Maybe so. But as rendered here, the revelations are overengineered to risible exhaustion. Abandoning Spanish, the latter half prefers English to articulate the dramatic weight of its conclusions, tiring of its conceit. Chapter headings, such as Immersion and Fluency, suggest organising principles but appear fey and redundant. The politics of a professional relationship between this man and a working-class Latina are given lip-service, and there’s a vague attempt to upend liberal platitudes. But it’s all bathed in an essential incuriosity and uneasy smugness, punctuated by an insipid finale.
Language Lessons does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews and interviews from our London Film Festival 2021 coverage here.
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Watch the trailer for Language Lessons here: