I’ve lost my words.
For Cariño (Natalie Morales), teaching Spanish via Skype to students anywhere in the world pays the bills. The assumption is that most clients are either children being made to learn by their parents or adults in need of a crash course before heading on vacation. If the money clears, who cares? She gives them their hour and they can take as much or as little from it as they want. The one common thread, however, should be that everyone is aware of what it is they’re doing. That’s untrue for Adam (Mark Duplass). When Cariño calls into his computer, all she sees is an empty room and a voice off-screen whispering. Adam’s husband Will (Desean Terry) bought this course as a gift and has yet to tell him.
Will’s also hiding behind the laptop so he can scare him upon entering the room to see a strange woman’s face looking back, making the scene as funny and awkward as you’d expect considering the idea of video calls and online classes is still so unpredictable. It’s easy to blindly forget that the person on-screen is real and “present” due to the disconnect of them not being in the room to engage with whatever atmosphere has been otherwise built. When Adam starts chasing Will around the room for payback—knocking furniture over in the process—Cariño finds herself helpless to do anything but wait since they wouldn’t hear her speaking and she can’t physically block their way to rein in the chaos. She’s completely at their mercy.
They’re completely at hers too, though. She could hang-up. She could chastise them. She could say it’s not worth her time and refuse to refund them their money. And no argument can be had to hash out these details if she simply logs off and never answers their number again. On the flip side, however, agreeing to keep going also means agreeing to the potential for bigger surprises—and not always the joyful, entertaining kind. One week could have Cariño dialing Adam’s number to help him reclaim the Spanish he’s lost since his youth only to find him despondent on the other end. To subsequently learn it’s because a profound and devastating tragedy has struck would inexplicably bind them together whether they’re ready or even willing to comply.
That’s the premise behind Language Lessons, directed by Morales and co-written with Duplass. The casual vibe of their first week unpacking his aptitude level (as he swims in the pool outside his giant Oakland home while she streams from a tiny room in her Costa Rican apartment) is thrown on its side when she calls him the next Monday. He’s in bed on the verge of hysterics; she’s unable to give him what he needs thousands of miles away besides a compassionate ear of someone willing to put everything aside and simply be present. That’s what she does when she calls to check on him later and it’s what he appreciates when he responds back, thankful for the distraction. Have they become friends? Or is it a mirage?
It’s impossible to know, right? Their relationship spans one hour-long “class” and a few video voicemails steeped in humanity. They barely know where each other lives let alone who they are beneath the façades they’ve shared over the internet. Cariño can’t know if Adam would have told her what happened if he didn’t just happen to be experiencing it when she called. He can’t know if she’d have been so caring if that moment didn’t lend that specific reaction a sense of obligation. So why should she assume he’d be willing to provide the same when she finds herself in a troublesome situation? Add the vast cultural, racial, economic, and geographical chasm between them and nothing can be taken strictly at face value. Trust and online rarely overlap.
The result is a series of missed signals and misinterpretations. Is she overstepping? Is he pulling away? Where does pity end and sympathy begin? And how do you reconcile a desire to refocus this dynamic in a professional teacher/student way with a drunken serenade throwing artifice out the window? They want to get close. They want to be friends. But how can they? How can two people who met under their circumstances know the other is genuinely worried without an ulterior motive driving it? The answer, as with any other relationship, ultimately comes down to faith. We want to pretend the time they spend together is less valuable than an in-person conversation, but it’s not. We’re all weird, impulsive, and intrusive no matter where we are.
Breaking down that stigma is kind of what Language Lessons is about. And we need that message right now considering everything that happened in 2020 and is still happening today. We need to realize that relationships—especially platonic ones like this—don’t have to be diminished by distance. Our world is of a technological era where distance impacts very few things (if the capitalistic institutions relying on that distance to drive profits comply). What would have happened to Adam if he didn’t get Cariño’s call? What would have happened to Cariño if her kindness didn’t impact Adam so fully that he would stop at nothing to return the favor in her time of crisis? Their computers (and Will’s fateful gift) might have saved both their lives.
And that’s true for those who survived via telehealth and stayed close to relatives when physical proximity wasn’t safe. That this instance is between a wealthy white American and a working-class Costa Rican (by way of Cuba and Miami) only drives the point home further since they must put aside their intrinsic differences (the byproduct of systemically unequal infrastructure rather than individual bigotry or racism) and acknowledge the humanity connecting their souls. Morales and Duplass are superb in their performances and writing to not shy away from knee-jerk mistrust or long-standing insecurities. Their caution is warranted because their pain is real and their memories short. Bravery is necessary for vulnerability because the latter risks greater torment. The love discovered in the process, however, is almost always worth it.
courtesy of Shout! Studios. photos by Jeremy Mackie.