‘Language Lessons’ Review: Who’s Zooming Who?

Adam, who lives in a big house in the Oakland hills, has a plunge pool, a sauna, and a husband who buys him, as a surprise birthday gift, a series of 100 weekly online sessions with a Spanish teacher. The teacher is Cariño, who lives with her mother in Costa Rica. Over the course of their work together, she and Adam cross the boundary from pedagogy into something deeper.

The setup of “Language Lessons,” even without reference to Covid, is familiar, even banal. Video chats and messages form an ever-larger part of how we interact with strangers and sometimes make friends. The movie, directed by Natalie Morales (who plays Cariño) from a script she wrote with Mark Duplass (who plays Adam), explores the ways technology both reinforces and erases distance.

This isn’t Duplass’s first foray into found-footage filmmaking. In “Creep” and “Creep 2,” he plays a charming, disarming serial killer whose depredations are recorded on a cellphone camera. Adam, smart and chatty and a little grating in the usual Duplass manner, is a more benign specimen, though he isn’t initially enthusiastic about studying with Cariño. Still, he speaks Spanish well enough, and has good enough manners, to establish an amiable, bantering rapport with his instructor.

“Language Lessons” divides its 90 minutes into chapters, each one with a bilingual title (“Immersion,” “Comprehension”) invoking an aspect of language study. To break up the monotony of the two-person chat screen, the actors sometimes stand farther away from the camera, and sometimes soliloquize in private messages to each other.

At one point, a tipsy Cariño subjects Adam to a middle-of-the-night “Happy Birthday” serenade. That’s a comic interlude sprouting in a field of melodrama. “Language Lessons” includes a sudden off-camera death and intimations of domestic violence and serious illness. Through it all, the teacher-student relationship intensifies and eventually begins to fray.

Adam, reeling from grief, finds distraction in studying Spanish and a sympathetic companion in Cariño. As the bond between them becomes more complicated, the movie begins to feel less like an exploration of that connection than a lesson in plot construction.

Instead of making Cariño and Adam interesting, Duplass and Morales make things happen to them. The twists in the story are meant to raise the emotional stakes, but they have the opposite effect, undermining the credibility of the premise. The harder the movie leans into its own cleverness, the more it exposes itself as a diverting but ultimately unconvincing exercise.

Language Lessons
Not rated. In English and Spanish, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes. In theaters.

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