Language Lessons (2021)

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 TogetherPlan 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.

-Brandon Ledet

Plan B (2021)

I’ve been a huge fan of Natalie Morales for a very, very long time. In fact, I just got the Middleman DVD box set for Christmas and am doling out episodes to myself at a slow rewatch pace like a post-holiday Advent calendar, after my last rewatch of gray market .avi files that are still watermarked with the ABC Family branding. I heard about the then-unfilmed Plan B, Morales’s directorial debut, sometime back and then don’t remember ever hearing anything else about it until it premiered on Hulu. There’s a distinct style to her comedic delivery and timing that I have always loved, and it’s present in her other non-Wendy Watson roles with which we have been graced over the years; it’s also present here, in an esoteric spiritual way and in the way that her voice comes through so clearly in the cadence of her characters’ dialogue. 

Lupe (Victoria Moroles) and Sunny (Kuhoo Verma) are best friends. Both have single parents: Sunny is an only child being raised by her mother, Rosie (Jolly Abraham), a driven real estate agent with high expectations for Sunny’s academic performance; Lupe has younger brothers, and her mother passed away some time ago, pushing her minister father (Jacob Vargas) towards overprotection, against which she bristles. Sunny’s crushing on Hunter (Michael Provost), a sensitive boy whose signature pairing of cardigan and P.E. uniform revs her engine, and she’s egged on by the ostensibly more sexually experienced Lupe. When Rosie leaves for an out-of-state realty conference, Lupe convinces Sunny to throw a house party in order to spend time with Hunter, but when he leaves with another girl, Sunny ends up having (brief and unsatisfying) sex with a different classmate, the zealously Christian dweeb Kyle (Mason Cook). 

The next morning, she realizes that despite her best efforts to use protection, she may be amongst the minute percentage for whom condoms are ineffective. This kicks off a series of events in which the girls try to obtain the titular pharmaceutical, during the course of which they run afoul of a pharmacist (Jay Chandrasekhar) who invokes the state’s laws allowing for those of his profession to withhold medication based on “moral” objections, a gas station attendant (Edi Patterson, of The Righteous Gemstones) with her own issues, and a supposedly teenaged drug dealer (the 31-year-old Moses Storm) whose apparent age is the result of never drinking water. En route to the closest Planned Parenthood, a several-hour car ride that turns into an overnight coming-of-age road comedy, Sunny has an unexpected encounter with Hunter, and Lupe finally meets her oft-mentioned off screen love interest, Logan, for the first time in person; both we and Sunny learn that Logan (Myha’la Herrold) is actually a woman. With the ticking clock to get both the Plan B pill before it starts to lose its efficacy, and for the girls to get home before Sunny’s mom gets back from her conference, one never forgets that stakes, regardless of how many peals of laughter are experienced between delays. 

There’s a great scene early on in which we get a one-scene performance from Rachel Dratch as Ms. Flaucher, the characters’ sex ed teacher. Just like I did, they’re getting an abstinence-only curriculum in which premarital sex is given an elaborate metaphor. You know the one; in his late-2019 stand-up special, Jaboukie Young-White talked about his Catholic upbringing in which the sinfulness of the Marital Act outside of the Marriage Bed was demonstrated by having everyone spit in a cup and challenging the last person to drink it. My school also had the one with the Scotch tape, in which once you put it on someone’s shirt, then someone else’s, then a third person’s, the tape lost adhesiveness, to show how we could never really properly bond to our future spouses if we allowed ourselves to be sullied by physical encounters in which loose threads were exchanged, if you follow. The September 2019 installment of Into the Dark, entitled Pure, took place at a purity retreat; during the scene in which the event’s spiritual leader asked for a piece of gum and started chewing it, I told my then-roommate that this was about to become a metaphor for how “gross” and “used” people were, and he couldn’t believe that this prediction came true. At least I am too old to have been subjected to Christian trap music, which plays a role here in Plan B

On the VHS tape (ha!) shown to Lupe and Sunny’s class, a woman’s virginity (and it’s specifically a woman’s in this case, which is discussed) is presented as a much-abused car, which her husband refuses to ride in. There’s something essential about comedy that requires it to be knowing, and that’s what elevates Plan B. It’s not just funny, it’s funny in a very intimate way, which matches the subject matter, appropriately interspersed with emotional reminders of the potency of teenage emotion. Sometimes, no matter how adult you think you are and attempt to take care of your problems, you’re still a child and you need an adult, and it’s ok to acknowledge that. That emotional honesty plays out in its demonstration of young love, and how it can be sweet and still a little embarrassing. And it does it all with humor that verges-upon-but-does-not-quite-become gross-out comedy, vignetted character portraits of outlandish but somehow instantly familiar personalities, and the warmth of basking in the effortless conversational volley between two best friends who know each other better than anyone else in the world. There are a few missteps; I personally can’t stand a late-film friendship-threatening argument, and although this one is blissfully short and quickly reversed, that really underscores how unnecessary it is. But I’m not here to get bogged down in those details, and neither should you be. This one’s a lot of fun.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Happily (2021)

There’s a certain kind of low-budget indie comedy that’s packed with the hippest, funniest comedians you know . . . who just sorta sit around with nothing to do.  They’re not so much hangout films as they are grotesque wastes of talent.  What’s frustrating about the recent “dark romantic comedy” Happily is that starts as something conceptually, visually exciting in its first act, only to devolve into one of those comedy-scene talent wasters as it quickly runs out of ideas.  Happily opens with a wicked black humor and a heightened visual style that recalls what everyone was drooling over with Game Night back in 2018.  Unfortunately, it leads with all its best gags & ideas, so after a while you’re just kinda hanging out with hip L.A. comedians in a nice house – which isn’t so bad but also isn’t so great.

Joel McHale & Kerry Bishé star as a couple whose persistent happiness and mutual lust—as if they were still newlyweds after 14 years of marriage—crazes everyone around them.  Their cutesy PDA and ease with conflict resolution is first presented as a mild annoyance to their more realistically jaded, coupled friends.  Then, Stephen Root appears at their doorstep like the mysterious G-Man in Richard Kelly’s The Box, explaining that their lovey-dovey behavior is supernaturally deranged, a cosmic defect he needs to fix with an injectable fluorescent serum.  That Twilight Zone intrusion on the otherwise formulaic plot feels like it should be the start to a wild, twisty ride.  Instead, it abruptly halts the movie’s momentum, forcing it to retreat to a low-key couple’s getaway weekend in a bland Californian mansion with its tail tucked between its legs.

In its first half-hour, Happily is incredibly stylish for such an obviously cheap production.  Red color gels, eerie dreams, disco beats, and an infinite sea of repeating office cubicles overwhelm the familiarity of the film’s genre trappings, underlining the absurdity of its main couple’s commitment to their “happily ever after” romance.  Once it gets derailed into couples’ getaway weekend limbo, all that visual style and cosmic horror just evaporates.  The talented cast of welcome faces—Paul Scheer, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Natalie Morales, Charlyne Yi, Jon Daly, Breckin Meyer, etc.—becomes the main draw instead of the dark Twilight Zone surrealism, which is a real shame.  There are plenty of other films where you could watch hipster comedians act like cruel, bitter assholes in a lavish locale.  The early style and humor of Happily promised something much more conceptually and aesthetically unique.

And since there isn’t much more to say about the toothless hangout comedy that Happily unfortunately devolves into, I’ll just point to a few recent titles on its budget level that are much more emphatically committed to the biting dark humor of their high-concept, anti-romantic premises: Cheap Thrills, The One I Love, and It’s a Disaster.  Those are good movies, and this is almost one too.

-Brandon Ledet