Berlinale 2021 review: Language Lessons (Natalie Morales)

If the past year has taught us anything as a worldwide population, it’s that we should cherish every moment we can and the importance of taking stock of the things that matter the most. The COVID-19 pandemic brought many challenges in all spheres of life, as reflected in the proverbial ‘new normal’, which saw the global community adapting to unprecedented change. The world of entertainment was just as impacted and, as was the case for every industry, there were methods employed that helped in keeping it alive. We saw several films made remotely, through the use of video-calling technology and a range of other methods that showed the extent to which a worldwide crisis can bring out an unexpected level of resourcefulness. However, the films that seemed to make the most profound impact were those that had something to say beyond showcasing ingenuity born out of crisis, serving a particular function that transcends the specific temporal moment and instead embraces something deeper. This was the case for Language Lessons, the feature directorial debut of Natalie Morales, who collaborated with independent film stalwart Mark Duplass in writing, producing and starring in this quaint but poignant drama that made exceptional use of the medium available to them, and the global situation surrounding the production. They managed to craft a heartfelt story about existence – going far beyond the novelty of a film produced entirely through a relatively recent form of visual storytelling that has only barely begun to be used in the wider filmmaking process – turning it into something intimate and incredibly personal.

Language Lessons doesn’t restrict itself to discussions on the global situation that served as the catalyst for its existence – in fact, it’s not even explicitly mentioned, as it doesn’t bear much importance to what we’re seeing on screen. The concept of the ‘lockdown’ film is used very loosely here, as it afforded Morales and Duplass the platform to create a stunningly simple film that is not confined to the present moment and will likely be able to exist on its own merits, even after we inevitably return to normality in the near future. Language Lessons is a film about finding a spark of human connection in moments of isolation, which we can all relate to in some way. A story developed around the subtle beauties of language in all its forms, the narrative focuses on two people – one a Spanish teacher in working-class Costa Rica, the other a middle-aged suburban man from California who is gifted a bundle of lessons – interacting and getting to know each other through a series of direct conversations, as part of the ‘immersion’ technique of learning a language through casual conversation. Putting together a clear picture of all that this film conveys is not as easy as it would appear, since below the surface (which has the tendency to feel like a quirky independent comedy, based on the premise) there’s a very solemn drama. It deals with serious issues that we may not expect to encounter, especially not based on the first few moments in which we believe that this is going to be a slight but enjoyable film about two individuals getting to know each other. As the viewer ventures further into the world Morales and Duplass are creating, we see how poignant the message underpinning the film actually is – and it’s through this unabashedly honest and saddening approach to some very real subject matter that Language Lessons is able to make a profound impact, leaving us simultaneously emotionally distressed and incredibly moved by the intricacies of this powerful story.

Any film that is willing to have a serious, genuine conversation about real issues is immediately going to be admirable, and Language Lessons is no exception. This is a film primarily about two broken people, lost in a world they have stopped recognizing after various challenges forced them to change their perspective. Over time they begin to open up to one another, transitioning from a mere student-teacher professional affiliation into a friendship that allows them to address their loneliness and realize how it’s possible to find themselves through engaging with someone who has had similar experiences. Morales and Duplass are primarily focused on exploring the concept of human connection, and how shared communication can give us insights into resolving our own individual quandaries. These characters may be a world apart, coming from entirely different backgrounds and having lived radically diverse lives – but they soon find that they are united by a common humanity. When we take the risk to share our own past, we can learn the extent to which we have all experienced common problems, whether it be the loss of a loved one, health crises, or uncertainty of the future. Taking these varying ideas and filtering them into a beautifully poignant story of friendship allows Language Lessons to be far more than just two people speaking through the internet, but rather a series of profoundly moving conversations on the nature of life and death (and absolutely everything in between) to which many of us should be able to relate on a fundamental level.

Unveiling the challenges of modern existence through such a poignant, character-driven drama gives Morales the chance to show remarkable depth as a filmmaker. Language Lessons is a straightforward film in execution, but one where the simplicity guides every aspect of the story and allows it to grow into such a beautifully human film. Presenting the relationship between the two main characters as a series of fragments, whether it be through direct conversations, or short, individual moments on their own, Morales and Duplass weave together a deeply moving portrait of contemporary life and the questions that we all ponder on occasion. This film asks many questions, especially those that relate to the nature of hopelessness, which is a quality shared between the two main characters – and it shows that while we may not be equipped with the answers immediately, we do have the ability to reach out in an effort to understand why we all tend to experience certain sensations, regardless of our background. Whether we come to this understanding through interacting with those in similar situations, or through looking internally and finding it within ourselves is part of one’s personal journey, depending on the individual. Yet as the film demonstrates, a combination of both is most common, and that through engaging with another human being and getting a glimpse into their lives we can come to realize the depth of our own inner resilience in the face of harrowing adversity, whether the challenges come from within or are a result of a hostile world.

Language Lessons is a film about finding a way to tell our own story, describing our experiences by trying to put them in the simplest words possible. Communication is absolutely vital, especially when it comes to the boundaries that protect us from emotional and spiritual injury, but can also inadvertently keep those who try to help us out entirely in many instances. Everything is about balance, and as shown throughout this beautiful film, finding the gaps and filling them is essential to any successful relationship, whether platonic or romantic. Morales and Duplass weave together an incredible story of tenacity and determination, crafting a hauntingly intimate account of trauma, and showing the power of words in the process of healing. The film is anchored by unexpectedly brilliant performances and a screenplay that draws on the natural charisma of the two leads, but also one that redefines the margins of a narrative that is far more complex than we would imagine based on a cursory glance. Striking the perfect balance between a tender comedy and heartbreaking drama, Language Lessons finds a way to be simultaneously devastating and deeply hopeful, particularly when conveying the message that life has many obstacles, and that even at what feels like the lowest point, there is always hope beyond the despair. Considering the circumstances surrounding the creation of the film, and the innovative resourcefulness that inspired it, there has rarely been a better reminder to hold out for a better day, which is certainly on the horizon, even when it may appear to be obscured by insurmountable obstacles.