No one needs reminding that the past 18-plus-months, aka Life in the Time of Corona, have been tough – unrelentingly so at points. So to be able to get back into the communal experience of watching films together at a film festival like London is a blessed relief, a sense of normality being restored. But just as we’re not yet clear of the virus, it’s inevitable that filmmakers are going to continue to reflect their own experiences shaped by the pandemic. And when such tragic reality is filtered through a comedic lens, it can bring some unexpected, fascinating results.
Video conferencing has suddenly become a central part of many people’s lives, be it Zoom, Teams, Skype or whatever your particular brand of face-to-face time evolved into. Natalie Morales’s Language Lessons uses the together-alone relationships we’ve been forced to form and takes the idea for a funny and touching spin. It’s centred on a wealthy middle-aged couple based in Oakland, with Will buying his husband Adam (Mark Duplass) 100 online Spanish lessons with tutor Cariño (Morales), who lives in Costa Rica. But when Will is suddenly killed in a car accident, Adam and Cariño’s conversations start to go deeper than conjugating verbs.
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What they both need, beyond the lessons, is a connection and the chance to get to know someone – even if not in person – when at a low ebb. The results are played almost exclusively as a two-hander between Duplass and Morales, who also co-wrote the script, and they’re a wonderful match, modulating the shifts between laugh-out-loud humour and true poignancy. It’s also a lesson in expertly marshalling resources to shoot an entire feature in the midst of a lockdown, using not just video calls, but also an individual’s recordings sent out into the ether. The film speaks to the times, but resonates far beyond them.
As much as many people found themselves isolated from loved ones during the pandemic, it also created groups of people shut in and forced to spend an extended time together. That’s a concept deftly exploited by Roshan Sethi’s romantic comedy 7 Days, which intertwines an Indian arranged marriage scenario with lockdown. Ravi (Karan Soni) and Rita (Geraldine Viswanathan) have been set up by their respective parents for a date through an online website. He’s a highly strung traditionalist; she’s rebelling against expectations and a secret meat eater and alcohol drinker. The date is clearly a disaster and it’s a relationship going nowhere – a bit like Ravi himself when he becomes stranded in Rita’s apartment due to the COVID-19 outbreak closing off all escape options.
Many romcoms play with the whole ‘opposites attract’ idea and 7 Days gets a lot of mileage from Ravi and Rita’s very different takes on relationships. What marks the film out, though, is how the inability to get away from each other effectively forces each person to really be themselves. It also demands that each really sees the other for who they are, flaws and all – something such dating websites actively discourage. Rising stars Soni and Viswanathan do a fine job of exploring complex characters with great empathy.
Without giving too much away, the film also uses the pandemic in an active way, rather than just as a convenient backdrop for its central concept. Amid all the smart humour, it’s a salient reminder of what’s at stake in the wider world. And to be able to screen, and collectively watch, both films at the LFF is another, more optimistic sign of the times.