There was much attention paid to the dual achievements of Ridley Scott & Ryusuke Hamaguchi directing two films each in 2021, but I haven’t personally seen any of the four films they released last year (House of Gucci & The Last Duel and Drive My Car & Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, respectively). However, I have seen the dual directorial debuts of actor-turned-auteur Natalie Morales, Plan B & Language Lessons – both released in 2021. Plan B was the higher-profile release of the pair, boasting a larger budget and a substantial promotional push when it premiered on Hulu. It’s a fun addition to the new wave of teen sex comedies that attempt to de-Porky’s the genre by giving girls’ libidos a spin at the wheel for a change (joining titles like Blockers, Booksmart, The To Do List, and Never Have I Ever). Language Lessons is a much smaller film in scope & cultural impact, both of which were restricted by circumstances of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Filmed on laptops with an onscreen cast of two, Language Lessons finds Morales toying with the screenlife genre the same way she played around with the tropes of the teen sex comedy in Plan B. There’s nothing flashy about her directorial style in either film, but she demonstrates a sharply tuned ear for comedic banter in both, which is especially evident in the film that is pure dialogue with no visual distractions from the script.
Mark Duplass stars as a nouveau riche Oakland hipster whose semi-famous husband buys him 100 Spanish language lessons as a surprise birthday gift. His teacher is played by Morales herself, who’s much more protective of her personal life and is unsure how chummy she wants to be with a stranger she’ll be speaking to on a weekly basis for two solid years. There are many barriers obstructing the mismatched pair’s path to a genuine friendship: their California/Costa Rica locations, their wealth/working class social statuses, their gringo/Latina cultural heritages, etc. Gradually, though, the professional & transactional boundaries of their relationship break down and they become genuine, real-life friends – often through abrupt, shocking events in their lives off-screen. The story is told entirely through Skype calls & video messages but doesn’t do anything remarkably unexpected with the screenlife format. It’s just well written & performed enough to get by as a compelling one-on-one dialogue exchange, no visual embellishments necessary. In comparison to other 2021 releases on similar topics, it doesn’t have quite as much to say about the transactional nature of modern online social life as Pvt Chat, but it’s a better attempt to remold dusty romcom tropes into a sincere story about friendship than Together Together. Plan B is likely the 2021 Morales film that will be remembered & respected over time, but Language Lessons helps reinforce that her excellent dialogue & character work in that better-publicized debut was no fluke.
Sweeping Morales to the side for a second, Language Lessons does feel like a no-brainer Duplass Brothers project for the COVID era. Not only was there a huge uptick in Duolingo users learning new languages in their idle time early in the pandemic (myself included, until Hurricane Ida power outages interrupted my momentum), but the safety protocols of COVID-era productions make for the exact kind of intimate indie dramas that the Duplasses cut their teeth producing. At their best, Duplass productions are exciting reminders that just a couple people & a camera are more than enough resources to slap a decent movie together (as long as the script is strong). Casting Mark as one of those two people in this instance makes Language Lessons feel like a wholesome counterpoint to Creep, a natural evolution of the exact kinds of movies they produce in normal circumstances anyway. Morales is credited as the sole director of this production, but she shares the writing credit with Duplass, marking it as a true collaboration between them. I’m not sure what she plans to accomplish as a filmmaker in the long term, but she had a great start in 2021 with two solidly entertaining, surprisingly political indie comedies released in the same calendar year. Neither one is going to earn the level of attention the decades-established filmmakers Scott & Hamaguchi are enjoying but, again, she’s just getting started.