Getting Into Gear And Learning To Drive
Two New Yorkers from diverse backgrounds form a friendship in Learning To Drive. On a cab ride from a dinner date, college instructor Ted Shields (Jake Weber) tells his literary critic wife Wendy (Patricia Clarkson) that he's leaving her for another woman, and even disembarks from the cab at a place other than their home. A distraught Wendy leaves a package in the cab, but the driver, Darwan Singh Tur (Ben Kingsley) returns it when he finds it. Wendy tries to offer him a reward, but he refuses it. She gets his business card, and learns he also offers driving lessons as his second job. With divorce looming and a daughter, Tasha (Grace Gummer), living in Vermont, Wendy calls Darwan for instruction. Darwan guides her through her apprehensions as she gains confidence behind the wheel. They also start to speak in friendly terms.
Because of his devotion to his Sikh beliefs, Darwan, himself a former teacher and native of India, lives modestly in Queens with his nephew and a couple of illegal Indian immigrants, until ICE agents seize two of the men, and the nephew hides and decides to live with his girlfriend. That change allows Darwan to have enough room for Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury), a woman Darwan has agreed to marry by arrangement. However, she is miserable, keeping to herself in their apartment, worried about her lack of education, and getting little time with Darwan and his jobs. Wendy's sister Debbie (Samantha Bee), gets Wendy to agree to a date, but it becomes a date where she fails to make a connection. Darwan, meanwhile, in his attempts to grow closer to his wife, encourages Jasleen to go outside, and makes friends with other women in their neighborhood on a shopping trip. Darwan, meanwhile, prepares Wendy for her driver's license test as she prepares for other changes, now that Ted has gone.
Learning To Drive, inspired by a non-fiction work by Katha Pollitt, is a pleasant, but predictable, slice of life from Spanish-born director Isabel Coixet. Both Wendy and Darwan go through significant changes in their lives as their relationship as teacher and student progresses. Both go through changes in roommates, though Wendy has to learn how to live alone. I think some moments are symbolic, such as the momentary reconciliation between Wendy and Ted ends abruptly when Ted's car gets towed. The film absolutely plays all situations safely, such as the situation where a pair of teens call Darwan Osama as they cross the street in front of him and Wendy. They appreciate the lessons in culture they receive while on the road, and their conversations allow them a fresh perspective on their current situations. Other movies might play up the eventfulness of the things that transpire, but Coixet makes the events of the movie seem natural.
The performances of Clarkson and Kingsley make viewers care what happens to Wendy and Darwan. Clarkson shows the worries impending divorce has brought, and shows how learning a practical skill can make things worse. Like many other New Yorkers, Wendy has relied on public transit instead of her own transportation. Driving scares her, but Darwan has had years of experience as an instructor. It is he who reminds Wendy that the worries of the world fade away behind the wheel of a car. Kingsley is stoic and dignified as Darwan, a man who honors his religious beliefs and has known people who persecute Darwan and Sikhs like him. He takes life as it comes, and accepts the challenge of growing with a woman who shares just a dwelling and a religion with him. He lets his feelings be known in his own quiet way, such as the scene where Wendy chooses a car to her liking. The supporting performances from Weber, Gummer, Choudhury, and Bee are small, but effective.
Learning To Drive quietly chronicles the lives of two people as their paths cross over the course of a few weeks. One gets married, while the other prepares for a union's end. One drives for a living, while the other finds she needs that skill. That period is a bit of a momentous time for both, but the movie never gives this time a great deal of importance. Wendy and Darwan give their situations the attention they deem necessary, but all they look to do is keep their lives going in the right direction.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Learning To Drive three stars. It's time to take the wheel.