Screen Time with Natalie Morales

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by Rebecca M. Alvin

During the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, many turned to streaming services as movie theaters shuttered and Hollywood halted production so severely that even open-air drive-ins could not stay open in many cases. The films we watched may have been related to the pandemic, but in most cases, they weren’t and that was just fine with everyone. (Who wants to see the loneliness and despair of COVID-19 on television when you’re living through it in reality?) But through these conditions we also found ourselves connecting with loved ones through our screens, something many of us were not apt to do before these events.

For multi-hyphenate filmmaker Mark Duplass, these circumstances lead to the germ of an idea for a film about two people who connect via Zoom in increasing depth as each one goes through their own personal crisis. When he called up actress/director Natalie Morales to collaborate on the project, the end result was Language Lessons, a film that doesn’t necessarily take place during the pandemic, but which certainly could have and does evoke our recent experiences.

“It captured a feeling and not necessarily an era, you know. We didn’t want the movie to only be viewed right now,” says Morales, who co-wrote, stars in, and directed the film, and is this year’s recipient of the Provincetown International Film Festival (PIFF) Next Wave Award.

Hulu’s Plan B with Kuhoo Verma and Victoria Moroles.

The film centers on Adam (Duplass) and Cariño (Morales) who meet when Adam’s husband buys him Spanish immersion classes with Cariño, who lives in Costa Rica and does the lessons via Zoom. What begins as an unexpected surprise for Adam, one he didn’t necessarily even want, quickly turns into something quite different when an unexpected event throws him into a period of grief that is only brightened by his weekly classes with Cariño. Over time these lessons grow into a friendship, boundaries are crossed and uncrossed, and the two end up learning a lot more about each other by going beneath their own surface preconceptions, something we don’t necessarily associate with virtual communication, but which has become not so far-fetched in the current climate. But Morales, who is 36 years old, says it’s also part of her generation’s experience connecting online.

“I had friends when I was like a teenager in chat rooms that I looked forward to hanging out with every day after school. And you know, I connected with people online across the globe that I thought were my friends, especially at like my loneliest moments. So I think that happened several times in my life [before the pandemic] and for many reasons and in many different ways,” she says.

It’s a type of relationship that is rarely explored in film, not just because the two only know each other virtually, but also as a man and a woman. The dominant philosophy in Hollywood is just as Billy Crystal famously stated as the character Harry in Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally, “Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” But for many, including Morales, that ethos is absurd and doesn’t match real-life experiences in which men and women can have unique and rewarding, platonic relationships.

In Language Lessons, one way Morales and Duplass diminished that urge to impose the unspoken rules of a possible romantic connection on the characters was by making Adam gay. “I think, it helps, right? It helps you not even consider that at the moment. It takes that off the table, which again in turn makes the friendship more interesting to me. You know, I think we allowed the friendship to be the focus of the story,” she says.

Language Lessons with Mark Duplass. Photo: Jeremy Mackie

But even if he wasn’t gay,  Morales explains, “It is possible, and one of my very best friends on the planet is a man.” But more than that, she says a friendship opens new avenues creatively in a script. “In a romantic relationship, you know the steps: it’s first let’s be exclusive, then it’s I love you, then let’s move in together, then it’s let’s get married. Like it’s a very clear, outlined path, right? But with friendship it’s odd, it’s not as clear, it’s like is it weird that I’m going to say I love you to this person right now? You know, it’s like are we there yet? And I think it makes for much more interesting drama than a romantic relationship, honestly.”

While Language Lessons is her feature directorial debut, Morales has acted in a number of other projects. She played Aziz Ansari’s character Tom’s girlfriend on Parks and Recreation, voiced a character in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and played Rosie Casals in the film Battle of the Sexes. She also played the title character in Abby’s on NBC and had recurring roles in HBO’s The Newsroom and Girls. She got her directing break working with Duplass directing episodes of the HBO anthology series Room 104.

While Language Lessons breaks down barriers regarding these types of relationships, it’s just the tip of the iceberg for Morales, whose other new project, Plan B, which was just released on Hulu last month, twists the teen comedy genre by featuring two women of color as the protagonists and centering the plot on their journey to take care of a possible unwanted pregnancy after a night of partying.

“It’s about two teen girls who have a wild party and one of them loses her virginity and the next morning pees out the condom and they need to go get the Plan B pill. But it’s in South Dakota, which is one of the many states in the United States that has a conscience clause, which means that a pharmacist can deny birth control medication to anybody if it goes against their beliefs. So they are denied. They have to go to the one Planned Parenthood across the state to get the Plan B pill,” Morales says. But, she adds, “It is an R-rated comedy; all of the craziness of like teen R-rated comedy movies ensue except the stakes for this one are a little bit higher here and the problem is not let’s get my dad’s car back, it’s basic healthcare!”

Natalie Morales will be receiving the Next Wave Award at this year’s Provincetown International Film Festival, which runs in a hybrid live/virtual format now through June 25. She will be interviewed in a virtual awards presentation. For tickets and information about the event visit provincetownfilm.org/festival.