With their new film, Language Lessons, the creative duo of Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass have forged a film that is at once the perfect response to our Covid-addled times, and a film that resolutely avoids the presence of a pandemic. It takes place almost entirely over video chat; it deals with loneliness, distant connections, inequality and grief; yet the C-word is never mentioned, nor the P-word or even the L-word.
"It's not a Covid film at all, but I don't know that it would have been made if it weren't for Covid,” says Morales, who took on directing duties alongside writing and starring in the film with Duplass. Language Lessons charts the relationship between Duplass’ Adam and his online Spanish teacher Cariño, played by Morales; it was inspired by Duplass’ own experience of developing a friendship with his Spanish teacher during lockdown. Over the course of 90 minutes, Adam and Cariño connect in ways few manage in the flesh, let alone over video chat.
Originated, developed and shot all during the 2020 pandemic, Language Lessons makes ingenious use of the home-bound world we are now used to, without explicitly mentioning a lockdown or the need to stay at home. Adam is in the US whilst Cariño is in Costa Rica, so the long-distance chats make perfect sense. Building in other elements familiar to Covid-era audiences did come, Morales admits, “from an emotional place because of what was going on.” Yet by addressing today’s concerns without mentioning the elephant in the room, Language Lessons has become timeless. It is not one of the dreaded ‘Covid-Films’, but a gorgeously natural, semi-improvised film about much-needed love and support between two people, whatever their circumstances.
What will resonate most strongly with many viewers is the sense of connection that the film fosters. It is, first and foremost, about two people trying to make sense of their fucked-up world by leaning on each other for comfort and compassion. Timely does not even begin to cover it.
Adam and Cariño exist not as symbols of the potential connection you can build from afar like the stars of a touching Zoom ad, but are fully fleshed-out people, made real by their two creators. He is forthcoming and frank when he speaks, someone who “gave up on having walls” a long time ago according to Morales. Her character, by contrast, is the kind of bubbly, friendly person you would want in a language teacher, but dig too deep and she has walls of her own. “She's not used to anyone hitting that wall,” explains Morales. Adam’s continued chipping away at it is where the film finds most of its drama, whilst the underlying connection and humour between the pair is where it gets most of its warmth.
Take away the obvious ‘Zoom-movie’ format and Language Lessons turns out to follow all the structural beats of a conventional romantic comedy, just without any romance. Its place as a ‘platonic rom-com’ has not gone unnoticed by its creators. ”All the twists and turns and pitfalls and deep rejections that come normally only with romantic love are dealt with, but platonically,” says Duplass, who has referenced Richard Linklater’s seminal Gen X romance Before Sunrise as an inspiration. That film’s slow, careful attention to human connection can be seen in the basis of everything Language Lessons does. Morales and Duplass set out to make “that wonderful connective movie, but just with friends."
That small distinction, however, to make a film about two friends - one male, one female - almost feels revolutionary. "There really hasn't been a film that deals with a platonic male-female relationship in this way,” says Duplass, “That truly deep-dives into it." Morales, too, acknowledges that it is shocking to think that such a film scarcely already exists, yet our sensibilities are so used to seeing every male-female relationship dictated by romantic convention that all too often the beauty and power of a deep platonic connection is ignored. Language Lessons seeks to put that right.
The film is in many ways not a document of the pandemic, but a document of a deep friendship, not just between Adam and Cariño, but between Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass. The pair share a “compulsion to create” says Duplass, and they had been friends for some time. They even worked together on Room 104, the series Duplass created, like much of his work, with his brother Jay (who serves as an executive producer on Language Lessons). Despite their close creative partnership, Duplass and Morales are not co-directors of the film. Instead, it is the latter who took on that role. The opportunity to direct her first feature has been a long time coming for Morales, having faced barriers within United Talent Agency, where she was signed up as an actor.
”Within my own agency, they would not let me meet with an agent for directing,” Morales explains. “Different people in my life have been very supportive; my manager and my new agents are very supportive but nobody has done what Mark Duplass has done, which is go: 'I believe in you and I'm going to give you a chance, and I'm going to give you an opportunity to direct a show on HBO! And another one the next year!'” Her experience as a Latinx creative has been different from many of her contemporaries, she feels, “because I have Mark Duplass”.
Morales and Duplass’ awareness of the unequal opportunities afforded within the industry ended up feeding into their film, intentionally or not. "When you put things on [screen] that you want to see in the world, the world starts to change,” says Morales. “It's not the first thing I think about when I make art, but it's always in my head and in my heart." Adam and Cariño spend much of their time discussing wealth, privilege and gender in a way that makes both characters, particularly Adam, question their own outlooks. "It was important to both of us not to have [Mark’s] character be the white saviour of the movie,” says Morales. “We wanted these characters to save each other in a sense."
There is a clear wealth disparity between the two, something Adam feels consistent guilt about having come from a poorer upbringing. These themes almost accidentally crept their way into the film, explains Morales: "It was intentional only because it was unavoidable." Being filmed during lockdown, the stars had little choice when it came to locations, and Mark Duplass’ own large, very nice house ended up being the elephant in the room. "I never imagined that I would become as successful as I've managed to become in this industry,” he says. “That house we shot in is my old house. I sold that house because I do have guilt and I don't understand what all this means, and I was working some of this out in the movie through the character."
With all the world-changing events going on, little old cinema seems pretty far down the list of concerns. Nevertheless, for film fans the world over the fate of the movies has become one of the defining aspects of the last year. Some question the very future of the medium, but Language Lessons has made clear that not even a wide-scale lockdown can put a stop to creativity. In fact, the conditions in which it was made even helped the film to flourish in many ways. The one-to-one acting was close to theatre for the performers, and the hurried production time, Duplass explains, helped preserve much of the film’s magic.
“Sometimes you spend five years making a movie, and sometimes all that preparation and all that thought really helps the movie become distilled into the best version of itself,” he suggests. “But sometimes you do that and you beat out of the movie all of its youth and rough edges and you lose what I call the 'falling in love' period of the movie, which I equate to dating. Natalie and I made this movie in the first 3-5 dates, where it was still fresh and we were still getting to know it and we were still in love with the movie idea before it had a chance to grow sour. I really believe in that process, and [that] what you lose in preparation you gain in spontaneity and inspiration and excitement."
That said, the film was made on a scale so small its mere existence is impressive. Duplass and Morales had to do almost all of their own lighting, hair and makeup, and were left exhausted by the shoot. Yet despite the challenges, Duplass is still pretty positive on the whole experience: “I found it invigorating and a return to the way I used to make movies with my brother, and I love that." It is important to point out at this stage that despite the enormous creative power of Duplass and Morales, they did not act alone. They each heap praise on their supporting crew, especially DP Jeremy Mackie and editor Aleshka Ferrero.
Now that the team have assembled their film, all that remains to be seen is when, and how, everyone will get to connect with it. With more and more major studios announcing individual streaming services and Netflix pumping out more content than ever, the future of film looks increasingly focussed on the small screen. Whether this will help smaller-budget releases like Language Lessons is hardly a cut-and-dry issue, and its creators have a suitably nuanced view of the whole thing.
“I’m not an elitist when it comes to film or cinema, or art,” says Morales. “I think people were like that with TV when it first came out in the 20s. [...] Every way to express yourself is a valid way to express yourself, whether that's streaming or in a cinema. But I do look forward to the day of that cinema experience, because for me it's not about the size of the screen it's about getting to watch it with other people in a room. It adds something to the movie and the experience of watching it, when you hear people breathing and sighing and crying and laughing. It makes you feel connected to the world, because you're all sharing this experience."
The chorus of voices in the film industry calling for the preservation of the cinema experience has been large and loud of late. Without disagreeing with these calls, Duplass and Morales’ perspective is refreshing, in focussing on the joy of getting your project into the world rather than the way it gets there. “The fact that anyone wants to watch my movies, anywhere on any device,” says Duplass, “No false humility, I am honoured. […] If it ultimately ends up on a streaming service and a lot of people get to watch this movie and share it that way… that's great. I'm the luckiest man alive."
In all of this discussion, one thing that might have gotten lost is that the thing about making a film almost entirely alone, is that nobody needs to know you’re doing it. “We didn't tell anybody we were making the movie,” Duplass explains. “Because then if it sucked we could just bury it."
Let’s all be grateful that they didn’t.