In addition to seeing big releases much earlier than their wide release, the best element to film festivals is the opportunity to take a chance on unexpected screenings and find new favourites. At this year’s London Film Festival, that film is Language Lessons.

Language Lessons has a simply premise: Adam receives a gift of one hundred one on one online Spanish lessons with a teacher named Cariño. Through language and human connection the film blossoms into something bigger with huge compassion, becoming a truly special little story. This is the feature film directorial debut from Natalie Morales (the first of two this year), and is co-written by her and costar Mark Duplass.

The video calling format in film already can easily feel very tired, especially now after a year of zoom meetings and quizzes. But Language Lessons uses the platform as a tool instead of a gimmick, structuring it’s narrative through defined weekly lessons and video messages. It’s clear it has come from two creatives wanting to make a meaningful piece with the unexpected opportunity of the pandemic – it’s refreshing to see in that regard alone.

It’s Language Lessons ability to surprise that makes it so engaging. The first fifteen minutes are an easy, albeit charming, watch; then an immediate revelation shocks on such a huge scale that everything that follows becomes gripping and we are wholly invested in our characters.

The content can border on cliché on multiple occasions, with some obvious plot motivators and sudden outbursts; but the performances and pacing keep it tight. This writing duo know where we need an upbeat moment and where the lower moments can sit: their background as actors first and foremost works in their favour massively.

The characters reveal themselves steadily to the audience as they grow to know one another; Morales has a delicate way of playing someone keeping her cards close to her chest personally; and Mark Duplass especially gives a grand performance as someone suddenly thrust into a different life. The two share a clear chemistry and comfortableness that allows them to be vulnerable with one another in a powerful way onscreen – remarkable, given that it’s all virtual.

Morales and Duplass translate the beauty of the language in a way that inspires an audience to immediately learn it too. It welcomes Spanish as an integral and treasured element to the film and doesn’t try to force it to be accessible by an English speaking audience: which sounds obvious, though of course isn’t always the case in filmmaking. In a world seemingly rifer than ever with language barriers, to see it welcomed so warmheartedly is hope inspiring.

Language Lessons is pure of spirit and deeply emotive, showcasing the value of friendship and language itself. There are numerous elements that should hinder it from being a perfect piece of filmmaking, yet due to it’s evident well intentions and grounded performances, it’s very difficult for that to make a dent in an audience’s love for it. It feels like a very special little film.

Language Lessons does not yet have a UK wide release date

Follow fivethreeninety’s London Film Festival coverage here

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