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    Learning to Drive (2015): Movie Review

    “A measured and familiar, yet warm and pleasant, trip to moving on.”  

    Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley star side-by-side as student and teacher, respectively, in Learning to Drive, a film based on the 2002 first-person confessional by Katha Pollitt published in The New Yorker. Directed by Isabel Coixet, this heavily-acted, well-meaning low-budget indie dramedy is a freedom metaphor, speaking of self-powering lessons obtained from learning how to drive an automobile. 

    Wendy Shields (Clarkson), a middle-aged literary critic living in Queens, faces the biggest ordeal in her life yet. After 21 years of marriage, her husband, Ted (Jake Weber) is leaving her for an author whom Wendy has been reviewing fanatically. They are fighting about it and even while being at the backseat of a cab, they keep on arguing. Incidentally, Wendy mistakenly leaves her latest manuscript inside the cab. The next day, the driver, Darwan (Kingsley), returns the papers to her.

    Wendy has a sister, Debbie (Samantha Bee), and a daughter, Tasha (Grace Gummer), both living in the outskirts of New York. Wendy is a regular commuter, relying on the public transport or on her husband to take her around the city or visit Tasha. With the recent events, she feels the need to learn how to drive. Seeing Darwan’s student training vehicle, she immediately hires him as an instructor.

    Darwan is a Sikh living in an overcrowded room with his fellow refugees. He offers driving lessons during the day and drives a cab at night, or vice versa. Just as Wendy hangs on the verge of divorce, he is yet to meet his bride from India, Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury). With their time spent together, Wendy and Darwan soon form a respectful type of friendship as they aid each other in grappling the changes in their lives.

    Learning to Drive tenders a warm and well-meaning story. Steering clear of complications and unnecessary twists, its plot is simplistic yet sensitive enough to give sound lessons. It is basically a character study involving two equally opposite figures. Wendy is the middle-class, high-strung white woman while Darwan is the stereotypical hardworking Indian immigrant in the land of opportunities. They may be entirely different but the film provides an ample sweet time for their character to grow and develop.

    As observed, Wendy is the loyal wife whose passion for her craft takes the joy out of her marriage. In the process of divorce, the couple has to divide their assets and it pains her to sell their house. She is desperate to get her husband back, resorting even to a funny seduction, but still to no avail. Meanwhile, Darwan executes kindness and empathy in spite of his vulnerabilities. Aside from working multiple jobs, he also looks after his sister’s son. He takes pride being in America, despite being called as “Osama” because of his turban.

    Wittingly, their driving lessons become an instrument for them to teach other matters about life and love, even being appalled with their cultural disparities. Darwan is dismayed with Wendy’s dissolution of a 21-year marriage, while the latter is shocked with him tying the knot with a woman he has never even met before. Yet, they maintain a mutual respect and understanding. Wendy moves on to a smaller home while Darwan, being shy with his emotions, eventually establishes harmony in his basement apartment with his new wife who initially struggled adapting to American life.

    Without being preachy or whiny, the film expresses its insights through symbolisms and allegories related to driving. The moment they start their lesson, Darwan tells Wendy to “read the sign,” which may also relate to her looming divorce. With Darwan’s various instructions referring to changing lanes, crossing bridges and not stopping in the middle of the road, the film offers lingering messages about undertaking new challenges in life with alertness and openness.

    Undeniably, Clarkson and Kingsley are remarkable with their roles. Clarkson is a graceful artist as she adeptly adjusts with Wendy’s fears, regrets and hopes. Kingsley has a stiff and alert posture as Darwan throughout. Yet, at the core of his strained delivery lies sweetness and compassion. 

    Learning to Drive may have a banal material but it is impressively acted out, beautifully shot and competently edited that viewing experience becomes pleasant. With its clear-cut lessons and metaphors, it simply goes beyond entertaining. 

    Production company: Broad Green Pictures
    Cast: Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley, Jake Weber, Sarita Choudhury, Grace Gummer, Samantha Bee 
    Director: Isabel Coixet 
    Screenwriter: Sarah Kernochan, based on the autobiographical essay by Katha Pollitt 
    Producers: Dana Friedman, Daniel Hammond 
    Executive producer: Gabriel Hammond 
    Director of photography: Manel Ruiz 
    Production designer: Dania Saragovia 
    Editor: Thelma Schoonmaker 
    Composers: Dhani Harrison, Paul Hicks 
    Sound: Anton Gold


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