We need friends!
It sounds obvious —particularly as the pandemic drags us, socially isolated, into another fall— but it’s not.
People in the United States have largely figured out how to live without friends. We’re (at least supposedly) “rugged individuals” who don’t prioritize relationships. We don’t even really have a script for adult friendships. How do you meet? Learn to trust each other? Breakaway and fall apart? The stories we tell about friends tend to be based in youth when school and play make building and prioritizing these relationships relatively easy.
With Language Lessons, Cuban American director, actor, and writer Natalie Morales is chipping away at all that. It’s the second film she directed this year after Hulu’s Plan B, which also features friendship, just the more often portrayed high school kind. Plan B fits neatly into a category—the teen road trip as the vehicle (pun intended) for coming-of-age. Language Lessons is more unique. It’s a love story, but a platonic one. It’s a pandemic film but there’s no Coronavirus. It’s a tale of cross-cultural friendship but not a hackneyed one.
Watching it, I was easily taken in. The premise is simple: Natalie Morales’s Cariño is hired to give Jason Duplass’s Adam two years of Spanish lessons via video call. When Adam’s partner dies suddenly, Cariño, as a relative stranger, gives Adam the support he needs. An unlikely friendships blossoms, is tested, and (spoiler!) triumphs in the end. I haven’t watched something that is this heart-warming and true to the human experience (no saccharine-sweet here) in who knows how long.
That Cariño and Adam’s friendship is built online only makes the film more relevant. When I first watched it, I was worried. Who wants to watch what amounts to a 91-minute Zoom call? It turns out me and I bet you too. Yes, Language Lessons is literally just two people in little screens and separate places talking to each other. But both Morales and Duplass share a disarming charism, the type of magic that makes them feel both special and approachable. And the film is beautifully shot with varying visuals and silly set pieces to mix it up. My Zooms are nothing like that. So when the film ended, I was filled with possibility, with the belief that we can make meaningful relationships while we’re still unable to gather in person. It’s a nice takeaway and it’s not the film’s only one.
You see Adam and Cariño are also different. Different genders, ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds. You know, different in the ways that are supposed to keep us apart. And those things do present roadblocks, places for them to easily misunderstand each other. Adam’s particularly guilty of this, as the clueless, rich white guy. But his heart is big and his curiosity is genuine so that even though Cariño resists, the two do form a real bond. It’s a reminder that demography is not destiny, that the accident of your birth doesn’t have to define you.
The theme of cross-cultural learning is clearly well-trodden in Hollywood but often seems fake or facile. Think of the dust-up around Green Book, a movie about a white man learning the evils of racism via a friendship with a Black man. But where Green Book and its brother films fall flat is often in making the of-color friend a helping character, someone who exists to make the white person learn. These films are usually written by white folks and directed by them too, enshrining, per usual, the Anglo perspective. Language Lessons is not that—Morales and Duplass wrote it together and she directs it. Perhaps, as a result, the film feels even in a way other similar ones do not. Cariño and Adam get equal screen time and although Adam holds more power (as Cariño’s de facto employer), it’s really Cariño’s arc that powers the story. It’s her growth that gets us to our happy ending, her character’s development, who after the initial shock of Adam’s grief, takes over.
The result is a powerful meditation on friendship—how we build it, why it matters, and what it means. It’s comforting fair but the type you have to earn, a film that makes you work, just enough, for your happy ending. I highly recommend it.
A writer and activist, Cristina Escobar is the co-founder of latinamedia.co, uplifting Latina and gender non-conforming Latinx perspectives in media. She’s a member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association and writes at the intersection of race, gender, and pop culture. You can follow her on Twitter: @cescobarandrade.