Whether middle-management types like it or not, Zoom is here to stay. This once-obscure video teleconferencing app has moved to the center of both social and work lives around the planet—a move that was born of pandemic-era necessity but fits a longer, seemingly unstoppable arc towards a Wall-E future. That’s the pessimistic way of looking at it, anyway. An optimist might say that we have a new tool that allows for instant global connection, as well as an interesting challenge for artists eager to find innovative (and inexpensive) ways of working. One of the more successful experiments in the format is Language Lessons, which was filmed almost entirely on Zoom and features only two actors: co-writers Natalie Morales, making her directorial debut as part of an exceptionally productive pandemic year, and Mark Duplass, who got his start in the similarly humble world of mumblecore.
Although the format gives away the project’s pandemic-era origins, COVID doesn’t come up in Morales’ film. Instead, she and Duplass explore another side effect of the digital era: the artificial sense of intimacy that comes with online friendships. Sharing their innermost feelings under the guise of conversation practice en español, Morales’ characters know each other’s hopes and dreams, but they don’t know the basic facts of their material lives outside of a safe, strictly defined rectangle on their computer screen. In Language Lessons, a webcam is both a confessional and a smokescreen.
Duplass plays Adam, the bored spouse of a wealthy choreographer in Oakland, California, who’s gifted two years’ worth of Spanish classes with Cariño (Morales), an expat who gives online lessons from her home in Costa Rica. A dramatic twist shortly thereafter leaves Adam all alone in his and Will’s stylishly appointed mansion, with seemingly no family or close friends to comfort him. Startled by his revelation and sensitive to his loneliness, Cariño, who’s as sweet as her nickname implies, steps in to support Adam from afar. From there, Language Lessons unfolds in a series of FaceTime messages and Zoom calls (and one static high-def shot that’s starting in its clarity after all that pixelation) as the duo becomes very close in a very short period of time.
Because of the format. acting and dialogue are everything in Language Lessons. The humor is rooted in Duplass butchering his halting Spanish—at one point, he mixes up the words for “embarrassed” and “pregnant”—and subtle facial expressions say what Morales’ character cannot. Of the two, Cariño is the one who keeps her personal life closer to her chest, partially because she has more to hide and partially because, although he leans on her like a friend, at a basic level Adam is a client being provided with a service. The class and race dynamics of a struggling Latina freelancer lending emotional support to an upper-class white househusband add unspoken tension to their interactions, and a rich additional layer to the film.
Morales makes use of the limited frame to highlight the differences between her characters, even as the dialogue brings them together. Adam often sets his laptop further back to show more of his luxurious yet barren surroundings, while Cariño keeps her camera close, revealing tiny slices of homey, modest patios and living rooms. (The setting says a lot about the stars, too: Duplass’ part was filmed at the $6.75 million Silver Lake mansion he and wife Katie Aselton recently put on the market, reflecting how far he’s come since his microbudget days.) She also cleverly incorporates the software itself into her storytelling. A major dramatic conflict is revealed when Cariño’s camera accidentally switches on during a voice call, for example.
In the end, however, this is not a film about technology. It’s a platonic love story, exploring the things we reveal and the things we keep hidden when we start a relationship with someone new. Luckily, Morales and Duplass have the chemistry and the acting chops to carry this unexpectedly moving film: When Cariño tells Adam, “You’re not my friend, you’re my student,” during a climactic argument, the sentiment hits harder than one might expect, given the film’s unassuming scale. Though Language Lessons is being released in theaters, it’s the kind of movie that might play better at home on a laptop. Nothing can replace the big-screen experience. But if a digitally mediated future is inevitable, we can only hope that it will produce more thoughtful, open-hearted stories like this one.
Note: This is an expanded version of the review The A.V. Club ran from SXSW.