Language Lessons is the newest entry in the "screen life" genre, which was already gaining traction before 2020. By this I mean movies that are depicted entirely through the characters interacting with a computer screen, à la Unfriended or Searching. Last year's horror flick Host was obviously an early adopter, but I imagine over the next couple months we'll be seeing a glut of the "shot on Zoom" films created during quarantine by every actor who took a writing class once. It makes a lot of sense that mumblecore darling Mark Duplass would get in on the fun, because his aesthetic instincts are a perfect fit for the medium. But I can't say I expected the same from his director and co-writer Natalie Morales, who is more generally known for broader TV comedy. Language Lessons is her feature directorial debut, and it shows a side of her I'm glad she was given the chance to explore.

The plot of Language Lessons sounds exactly like every mumblecore movie you've ever ignored, so you'll forgive me for not having had high hopes going into it. Adam (Mark Duplass) is a man whose husband gifted him an immersive Spanish language course for his birthday. Cariño (Natalie Morales) is a bilingual post-grad living in Costa Rica who has agreed to help him brush up over the course of their 100 video chat lessons (which cost $1,000 total, so either the US to Costa Rica exchange rate is killer or Cariño needs to get better financial advice). A series of unexpected events occur that bring the two closer together, though their budding friendship is strained by Cariño's reluctance to share her emotions and Adam's well-meaning but misapplied white guilt about their difference in circumstance. The film is divided into several lessons, in which Spanish and English cheerily commingle, creating a stew through which both players learn the right way to speak to one another and nurture their bond. So we're learning language in more than one way, don'tcha know.

The vérité medium we're working with here dictates uncompromisingly strict approaches to framing and lighting. I don't think anybody would go out of their way to call this a gorgeous film. The format requires Morales and Duplass to lean on the two factors they ultimately have control over - script and performance - and both of these are thankfully knock-it-out-of-the-park spectacular. The writing is astoundingly tight, sprinkling delicate flakes of melodrama in just the right proportion to kick you to the curb with every twist without eliminating the low key realism that is the film's bread and butter.

In a screenplay where the most important thing is what a character isn't saying, it can be tempting to overplay those moments. We know Duplass could do this kind of thing in his sleep, but Morales is just as confident and capable, slicing through the toughest challenges with steely precision. I'd say the moment that best displays her range in this movie is a scene where she plays drunk. An actor raised on TV comedy would typically play that to the rafters, but every choice she makes is in service to the reality of the moment. Someone like Cariño, when drunk, would do everything in her power to pretend that she's in full control of her faculties, rather than lean in and stumble around like a loon.

This realism is so important, because the script requires a delicate balance between drama and comedy. Some of the emotional turns they take would be devastating without a constantly buoying sense of levity. Luckily they both deftly switch modes, passing the conflicting tones of any scene to one another without a misstep, like expert soccer players. I would definitely like to see more movies like this, whatever the format. A story about a platonic male-female friendship is always a treat, especially when it's so undeniably human and compelling. While it remains to be seen what Morales can do with a movie that requires more from her aesthetically, I for one am eager to see her rise to the challenge.

Brennan Klein is a millennial who knows way more about 80's slasher movies than he has any right to. You can find his other reviews on his blog Popcorn Culture. Follow him on Twitter, if you feel like it.