If there is one guarantee about our time here on planet Earth, it is the fact that our lives will become entangled in someone else’s. The hermit in the cave may be the one exception, but even he has a mother and a father. Some of the most true-to-heart movies are about the complicatedly simple process of two strangers coming together. Learning to Drive is one of those films.
In New York City, not having a driver’s license is a badge of honor — except for when the husband who always drove you around, leaves for his younger mistress. For Wendy (Patricia Clarkson), an unplanned divorce and a fortuitous cab ride lead her to Darwan (Ben Kingsley) — a Sikh cab driver by night and a driving instructor by day. Unsure of what life has coming for her next, Wendy decides to take driving lessons from Darwan. And what starts out as a way to gain some footing in the chaos, ends up as a teachable moment on paying attention to what is in front of you, for both Wendy and Darwan.
It seems unfair to call an independent movie quaint, but Learning to Drive is just that. It is a comfortable and sweet story about an unexpected bond between two strangers. Wendy and Darwan come from two separate worlds. She is a well-respected critic who lives comfortably in a brownstone filled to the brim with the bits and pieces of a life dedicated to culture and academia. While he is a hardworking immigrant scraping and saving to provide himself and his family with the American dream. These characters are not supposed to meet, but they do. It is under the charming circumstances of their driving lessons that we learn that most of us have something to learn from the people we think we may have the least in common with. The film’s focus on two adults as they go through a somewhat juvenile adventure — learning to drive — creates a story that resonates with the part in all of us that doesn’t want to grow up, even though the rest of you has.
While Learning to Drive excels at charm, the missing piece of the puzzle seems to be the rhythm of the humor. As to be expected, the majority of the film is spent in the car with Wendy and Darwan. During each lesson the two characters go back and forth in earnest conversation, but it is far from the spirited conversation you might see between friends. The result of this somewhat stoic relationship leads to some clunky writing choices between making a joke and taking the time to set up a life lesson. The humor is still heartwarming, but more attention could’ve been paid to how it was executed.
Speaking after the screening I attended, Patricia Clarkson discussed the mechanics of making this film — from the years spent trying to get it made to the rough-and-tumble nature of the filming process. Learning to Drive began as an essay in the New Yorker, written by Katha Pollit in 2002. Clarkson fell in love with the piece and knew immediately that she wanted to make it into a film. The film finally found a home that Clarkson was comfortable with in Broad Green Pictures. Once Kinsley agreed to take part, filming began immediately, with no rehearsals. Clarkson and Kingsley, who are close friends in real life, stayed apart during the filming — mindfully keeping their intimate relationship from bleeding into the new friendship between Wendy and Darwan.
Learning to Drive is a charismatic film about the different roles people play in our lives as we grow-up and learn how to appreciate the relationships around us. It is worth the watch, but maybe save it for a Sunday afternoon on your couch.