Learning to Drive is a movie about adults, for adults, and if perhaps a bit slight it’s none the less for it. It has intelligent integrity and is the work of a team led by Catalan director Isabel Coixet’s (Elegy), legendary film editor Thelma Schoonmaker (who has cut most of Martin Scorsese’s films and won three Oscars over the years—for Raging Bull, The Aviator, and The Departed), and screenwriter Sarah Kernochan adapting an autobiographical story by Katha Pollitt published under the same title in 2002 in The New Yorker. This is a good small film which in other hands might have been rendered meager and schematic, a formulaic dramedy with bromidic lessons. Instead, the story is finely observed with a feminist lens, at times oblique and always engaging, and it is impeccably acted by Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley—and if you know these two actors at all you know that they are incapable of anything less than specificity, fierce delicacy, and a sort of constant, believable unexpectedness in portraying wide-ranging aspects of the human condition.
Manhattan book critic Wendy (Clarkson) finds her life in turmoil when her husband of 21 years (Jake Weber) suddenly moves out for another woman. Determined both to broaden her horizons and find a way to visit her daughter (Grace Gummer) in Vermont, Wendy begins to take driving lessons from Darwan (Kingsley), the Sikh instructor who happens to be driving her cab the moment her marriage implodes. Formerly a university professor who went to jail on religious grounds, Darwan is now a political refugee living in a Queens basement with other immigrants, and he is about to enter a marriage arranged by his family to a woman (Sarita Choudhury) whom he’s never met.
Just as the film seems to be heading into a predictable love triangle, it veers into territory more textured and mature—and there is alternating charm, sober rue, and humor along the way. There is also a distinctly New York sensibility to the character development and to the cultural questions posed. The always emotionally translucent Clarkson makes the literate Wendy at once urbane and vulnerably wide-eyed. As Wendy begins to recalibrate a sense of confidence and calm under her instructor’s guidance she accrues intimations of the often harsh daily realities the dignified, deeply formal, inherently spiritual Darwan faces. She wants to be strong yet open to life. He wants to sustain his humanity by refusing to treat others with rudeness or contempt.
Just as in the driver’s education car even the smallest movement is terribly important, so in every scene Clarkson and Kingsley reveal Wendy and Darwan discovering a highly individualized universe in which every tone and gesture is significant. They create a unique space informed by the challenges of their different circumstances in which, together, they allow keener understanding, something fresh and nourishing, to grow.
– Hadley Hury
(Available through Netflix, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, and other select streaming sites)