Learning to Drive is a film that comes delivered in much of the packaging of a romantic comedy, but is one that actively resists the pitfalls of the genre. Instead, the story is more a coming-of-age of sorts, which looks at the state of modern life after the white picket fence dream has been achieved and then faded away, and one is left to pick up the pieces. Directed by Isabel Coixet (Elegy), the film is based on a New Yorker article of the same name by critic and essayist, Katha Pollitt.
Set in present-day Manhattan, a self-absorbed literary critic, Wendy Shields (Patricia Clarkson), finds her life thrown into turmoil when her husband (Jake Weber) ends their marriage in the back of a cab, all for a much younger woman. After being witnessed by a Sikh taxi driver, Darwan (Ben Kingsley), who also happens to teach driving lessons by day, Wendy decides to employ his services so that she can finally get her license. While she struggles to get her life back on track as she learns the rules of the road, and Darwan reveals plans for an arranged marriage, the two develop an unlikely relationship that teaches them both lessons in life, love and friendship.
Importantly, the film somehow avoids becoming trapped within cultural clichés of the wise foreigner who teaches the rich, white socialite how to love again. This is mainly through the equal time given to Darwan’s own life and the fleshing out of his story, which falls back-and-forth between issues of racial profiling and cultural adjustment. Darwan finds that his nephew (Avi Nash) adjusts slightly too well to his American home and adopts some of the more unsavoury behaviours, while his new wife, Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury), struggles to engage at all with the new Western World that sits outside her front door. Meanwhile, the story is sprinkled here and there with moments where Darwan faces the consequences of racist minds in a post-9/11 society, much to Wendy’s dismay, although it thankfully steers clear of giving into the white saviour trope.
Both Clarkson (Easy A) and Kinglsey (Ender’s Game) deliver likeable performances that really elevate this story above the standard fare of a television movie-of-the-week. Clarkson brings much more vitality and depth to a character that, without her talent, would have been rather passive and one-dimensional. Similarly, Kingsley imbues Darwan with a quiet dignity, which never falls completely into tired stereotypes, and he somehow manages to walk the fine line in not coming across as being merely condescending to the often loud and outspoken Wendy.
Yet, the script ultimately lets them down in the last act, when the most climatic plot point that’s built up is just whether Wendy can successfully pass her driving test or not. The film does decide to tackle the romantic underlining of Wendy and Darwan’s relationship in the eleventh hour, although admittedly it would seem that it’s less due to sexual tension and more as an understanding that the two fill a present void in the other’s life.
The only other point of drama is Choudhury’s (Homeland) Jasleen and her reluctance to engage in an, at times, frightening and uninviting foreign land, but even this is quickly resolved and glossed over with a fairly easy solution. Jasleen is easily one of the most interesting characters, and also the most sympathetic, as the arranged bride who is thrust into a world that she barely speaks the language of. Grace Grummer and Samantha Bee also make appearances as Wendy’s daughter and sister respectively, although their characters are mainly just used to reinforce Wendy’s story.
These types of metaphorical narratives can sometimes lack any subtly, and Learning to Drive is no different. Wendy learning to check her mirrors, focus on the road and not hit pedestrians, become clear reflections of her finding her footing again after her break up and getting on with life. Wendy learning to drive is the film’s sole focus, and it’s a shame that more time isn’t spent on the secondary characters, or even delving into other aspects of our main characters lives. Apart from a brief scene near the start of the film, we never really even see Wendy engage with her job as a critic at all, which seems at odds with how important her job is to her. These choices all would have made for a much richer film and added some much-needed depth, but again, it’s Clarkson and Kingsley’s acting skills that divert attention from these shortcomings.
Ultimately, those looking for an easy viewing that delivers an affirming message for life after fifty will be pleasantly satisfied with Learning to Drive, as long as they don’t expect a more in-depth study of love and life.