There might be a very small reason to recommend “Language Lessons.” The film’s a pandemic project, so it’s sparse and scrappy, but the Natalie Morales-Mark Duplass combination really might be the pinnacle of sweet. Yet, it’s entirely on Zoom, which creates such an impeccable yet frustrating effect that “Language Lessons” might be worth getting (just a little) excited over.
Cariño, a Spanish tutor played by writer-director Morales, is also frustrated. She isn’t for long, however, as Morales’s capacity for a sunny glow becomes this film’s conceit — but the character has good reason to be: Will (Desean Terry) has secretly signed up his husband Adam (co-writer Duplass) for 100 Spanish lessons, and it comes as a big surprise to both Adam and Cariño, leaving the latter perplexed, peeved and perturbed.
The ice between Adam and Cariño chips with some expediency. Cariño calls in from Costa Rica while Adam swims in luxury in an Oakland Hills mansion: Their first lesson finds him, “an extreme creature of habit,” doing his daily plunges in his temperature-controlled pool. “This life you lead is very different from mine,” Cariño ventures, dipping her toes into the candor that will mark their relationship. He attempts a joke about his opulence in Spanish, which bombs, but Cariño, always knowing the right thing to say, points out “it’s hard to make jokes in different languages.”
Sometimes Zoom feels like its own language, and Morales is fairly fluent. There are the usual hiccups — glitching and audio fragmentation — which are easy enough to ignore when “Language Lessons” overflow with kindness. The story quickly works through the chill between Adam and Cariño, and when tragedy suddenly strikes, all Adam and Cariño have to cling to is each other. While Adam takes some time to himself, they swap video messages, and “Language Lessons” blossoms as circumstance forces these characters together.
The lesson learned after “Language Lessons” is that Morales and Duplass are textured actors: The pair’s first session after Adam’s husband’s death finds Duplass grief-stricken and laying on his bed. His head rests in the pillows, but figuratively in the sand, which is admittedly more than Cariño signed up for, and the film lights a slow burn about the question of whether they’re friends or teacher and student. Morales and Duplass — the film’s only actors after Will’s passing — know how to complicate a gesture, and “Language Lessons” rests entirely on their performances: The camera never pretends to be anything other than a very static computer screen.
While “Language Lessons” takes a few cinematographic liberties, the film’s real trick is its staging. It finds creative ways to untether its actors from the screen; the film is more interested in finding ways to celebrate the joys of Adam and Cariño’s connection and less with the semantics that often define Zoom films.
It’s tragic that “Language Lessons” cannot spin on and on, like a child rolling down a hill, but must come to distinct and hollow stops every rotation. Zoom cinema strips film and the elements become more pronounced. There is so little left to entice our imagination that the tonal shifts screech, unfolding with the predictability of a stopwatch. Sometimes Morales’ direction leans into them, she mostly lets rhythm and flow steer the film, which is dangerous when “Language Lessons” is stilted and compartmentalized by six chapters.
Together, these chapters add up to a comment about the depressing way people fictionalize the lives of others, emphasized by Zoom — like a play within a play. Duplass’s face flashes with wonder about Cariño; her expression, in turn, flickers with assumptions of Adam’s intentions. And when the film finally ends the call, viewers will wonder what sweet, wholesome activities the characters will do once they’ve logged off.