I am a big fan of the Indie film genre, which was one aspect that pulled me to the film Learning to Drive. It brought in some well-portrayed cultural aspects, as one of the main characters in the film is a Sikh Indian. I knew a Sikh family when I was growing up in California, so it hit pretty close to home for me. They nailed it perfectly without leaning too heavily on stereo types. The father of the family I knew was a very humble, very honorable man. In fact, my main draw toward this film was that Darwan (Sir Ben Kingsley) reminded me so much of the man I knew. Learning to Drive touches on two very true to life situations; immigration and arranged marriage. Though the film seemed to simply bring it up more than actually delve into the subject matter, I was glad it had a place. The message that really drove home for me is that despite how intelligent or virtuous a person might be, sometimes we need a little push to get back in the driver’s seat and make some much-needed changes for our lives to move forward in the right direction.
Learning to Drive stars two amazing actors, both of which I think are far too underrated for the pure talent they possess. The story unfolds with our main character Wendy Shields (Patricia Clarkson), a very high-strung, semi-famous Literary Critic in New York. Wendy finds her marriage suddenly crumbling beneath her feet and in attempt to keep her life from going off the road she hires Darwan Singh, a deeply religious driving instructor to help her get both hands back on the wheel.
If you are a fan of good acting, well then you are in for a treat here. This is really were the film finds its greatest strength. Our main lead, Patricia Clarkson, whom you might remember from The Green Mile, does an excellent job on her role of Wendy. I really enjoyed seeing how real the character felt. Wendy has flaws, she gets road rage, has break downs, has a strong moral compass, and just feels human. She is clearly an introvert, which makes being a book aficionado work so well. It seemed to me that she is forced to be part of the world due to her career path. There’s a scene where Wendy is on a radio show, which clearly informs the audience that she can interact with the world just fine, but only does so because she needs to. I could certainly see her staying home all the time, nestled safely within the pages of a good book.
Sir Ben Kingsley on the other hand, did not bring life to Darwan Singh, he straight up became the character. Kingsley took on all the aspects of another human that one possibly could portray in any given moment, down to the mannerisms and expression. If this was the first movie I’d have ever seen of his, I would have thought he was indeed from India himself.
The culture in the film was captured very well. A large portion of the family I knew growing up lived under one roof. Everyone would help each other as best they could while also living as individuals and doing their own thing. The only exception was when it came to religion. Most members of the family were very much rooted in the culture from their native India, while the children were more adopted into American culture. This is seen directly in the film as Darwan shares a very small apartment with a few members of his family, as well as a few illegal immigrants.
Darwan’s son Preet (Avi Nash, from Silicon Valley) is the one in the household that breaks tradition, dating a local New York woman and shaving off his beard. He attempts to be as American as he can to avoid being treated poorly by the local authorities. Darwan is set up with an arranged marriage and is well-portrayed despite the small amount of time we get to see it. His wife, Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury, from Homeland), is forced into an awkward situation in a foreign land, where she has to learn to fit in immediately or risk her husband’s disapproval. We get to see her grow as she falls in with some local Indian women, who are more than happy to show her the ropes. It works really well as you can see the contrast between their comfort levels.
We get a good look at American culture when the film delves into Wendy’s life. Family seems to be a very important factor since that is the main reason she’s learning to drive in the first place. Her daughter Tasha (Grace Gummer, from American Horror Story) gave a decent performance in the film, filling the role as best so could despite the fact she had so little screen time. Wendy wants to spend some time with her daughter who is working out-of-town at a farm for her schooling. This allows Wendy to get away and be with family as she transitions into a new chapter of her life. This is also why the film feels more like more like a glimpse into the lives of regular people, and less like a movie. I moved in with my cousin after a terrible break up in the past. I needed support just as Wendy did in the film.
Three factors come to mind as I reflect on the film: setting, costuming and music. They fit in so well that they never really distracted from the acting, which is perfect. Learning to Drive felt short, but this isn’t a bad thing as it managed to touch on specific points very well. One thing that stuck out for me was the awkwardness in some of the scenes. At times it felt like they were cut up and just tossed in there so that we got to see these two people had a life beyond their time together. It didn’t hurt the film, though it certainly felt jarring at times. Overall, the movie works as both Sir Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson had amazing synergy that made the character’s relationship feel genuine. Both the writer (Sarah Kernochan) and the Director (Isabel Coixet) did a great job of working together to make this movie work. If they made a director’s cut that wove the scenes better I would most likely pick it up on DVD or blu-ray.
Learning to Drive was an authentic romantic comedy that shows two cultures coming together in a personal time of crisis to accomplish a much needed change in direction. You get to see some of the best acting the film world has to offer thanks to Sir Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson. It’s a great film to bring a good friend or romantic partner to as it will surely spark a conversation afterward. Although it’s not a game changer for the genre, it is a breath of fresh air when it comes to the huge torrent of garbage movies that Hollywood seems to always throw at us. If you have some free time and you want to see a movie that is worth it, give this move a test drive and you won’t be disappointed.
Learning to Drive:[usr 3.5]
About Learning to Drive
Synopsis: As her marriage dissolves, a Manhattan writer takes driving lessons from a Sikh instructor with marriage troubles of his own. In each other’s company they find the courage to get back on the road and the strength to take the wheel.
Director: Isabel Coixet
Writer: Sarah Kernochan
Stars: Patricia Clarkson, Sir Ben Kingsley, Grace Gummer
Runtime: 90 minutes