Berlin Film Festival 2021 Review: Language Lessons ★★★★

Writer-director Natalie Morales’ Language Lessons, which received its world premiere at the 71st Berlin International Film Festival today, is an absorbing two-hander starring Morales as Cariño, a Costa Rica-based Spanish teacher who has been hired to give California-dwelling Adam (Mark Duplass, who’s also co-writer) 100 weekly lessons as a surprise birthday gift from his husband. Initially taken aback by this disruption to his routine, including his morning swims in the back yard of the couple’s luxurious home, he comes to depend on Cariño when tragedy impacts his life.

Most of us have spent the last twelve months regularly communicating with friends, loved ones, and so many other people in our lives through our screens, to the extent that the prospect of watching a feature film made up entirely of video calls and messages might initially sound unappealing. Morales however navigates the restrictions masterfully, mining the potential for intimacy in the setup and sustaining our engagement throughout as a deep connection gradually forms between these two people thousands of miles apart. Visually things are kept dynamic, with both characters frequently moving locations, while a picture-in-picture layout for the calls means that one character fills the screen at a time, rather than them both sharing equal space. Although the pandemic clearly brought about the way the film was conceived and shot, the action doesn’t take place in a Covid-19 world, or at least it’s never referenced, making it more timeless and allowing us some escapism despite the zoom style format of the film.

Adam being gay means that the strong bond that begins to develop between him and his teacher is a purely platonic one, which is refreshing and somehow more interesting that a romantic dynamic might have been. Although we never see Adam’s husband Will (Desean Terry), apart from in photographs, through Adam’s conversations with Cariño a strong sense of the history between the men emerges and their off-screen gay love story sits at the heart of the film, alongside the touching platonic on-screen relationship. There’s also some intriguing backstory about Adam’s life before he met Will and embraced being gay.

Both actors deliver beautifully calibrated, natural performances and there’s an appealingly mellow vibe about the film that put me in mind of those classic two-hander movies, Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. By turns funny and deeply moving, Language Lessons makes us question the assumptions we make about people and the blanks that we tend to fill in with our imaginations, while celebrating our potential to form meaningful connections when we least expect to. Poignant, heartwarming, and ultimately life-affirming, this is a delight of movie.

By James Kleinmann

Language Lessons received its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival and will have its North American Premiere at SXSW.

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