Learning to Drive (2014)
Cast: Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley
Director: Isabel Coixnet
Studio: Broad Green Pictures 94174625 (1/19/16)
Video: for 16:9 1080i HD color
Audio: English DD stereo
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Length: 89 min.
A ‘feel good’ film but the message is a little heavy handed.
I have seen many positive reviews of this little art house film starring two of our greatest actors; both very adept at portraying a ‘type.’ I cannot argue with much of the general positivity vibe and, yet, I was just a bit disappointed.
The plot and premise here is very simple and direct. Patricia Clarkson is Wendy, a literary critic and author in the Big Apple whose marriage is completely on the rocks due, as presented, to the philandering of her husband Ted (Jake Weber.) Her teenage daughter seems both distant and vaguely disapproving of mom but we never really get to see much of that dynamic. To add to Wendy’s predicament and sort of constant frazzled state is the fact that the long time New Yorker has never learned to drive.
A chance encounter with a calm and kind-hearted cab driver from India played by Sir Ben leads to the main relationship in the story. When the driver, Darwan, takes the time to return a package forgotten in his cab to Wendy, at her home, an offer to teach Wendy how to drive as well as a sympathetic friendship that builds ensues. Darwan, in the meantime, is no kid but is ‘trapped’ in a forthcoming arranged marriage. That relationship we soon see never really gets too far while both Darwan and Wendy develop feelings for each other that – by film’s end – looks like it may turn into something more significant, but we are left to surmise. In teaching Wendy, Darwan uses a phrase that, laden with significance, becomes a tag line for the movie. “Teach yourself to see everything”, he says.
Both Kingsley and Clarkson are supremely gifted actors and do a very fine job here with what is a rather weak script and some missed opportunities. Director Isabel Coixet uses a story by Sarah Kernochan that has, at its core, the very clear and admirable notion that we never really know where our strongest alliances and most noble intentions will take us so, as humans, we owe it to ourselves to be open to all possibilities. Few could argue with that and the film mostly succeeds in this realm.
What hurts the tone, for me, is there an over reliance on the already pretty apparent cultural differences throughout especially in post-911 America (continuing to this day, indeed.) So we get several scenes that keep reminding us that we are all people even if not all people think so; such as the roundup of all the cabbie friends of Darwan’s who are presumably illegals, the college kids crossing in front of Darwan’s cab and then calling out “Osama! I thought you were dead” and – of course – when Wendy causes a little fender bender during a driving lesson, the other driver furiously tearing off Darwan’s turban and an officer from the NYPD wanting to know where Darwan is from. And there are other moments intended as subtle but feel anything but.
Moments like this do happen. There was a shameful shooting of a Sikh convenience store owner in my neighborhood shortly after September 11, 2001. Some police are bigots. Some political candidates espouse mass deportation, whether or not any reader agrees; they do – and so on. However a small scale very human story nearly gets lost in the mix.
The performances here are convincing and sweet and the message is uplifting. But we miss an opportunity to know a bit more about Darwan’s thoughts and to know if he is truly attracted to Wendy and why. The same questions could be posed vice versa. A little less of the people around them acting so badly and the underlying thought ‘Can’t we all get along?’ presented quite heavily would help.
Most viewers already know that America suffers in large part from culture clash or at least a desire for insulation. This is becoming familiar again, some two years after this movie was made. It is a nice film with two potentially fascinating central characters and a few cute comedic moments. It felt a little bit like one of those afternoon movies on various cable channels that specialize in the sweet and undemanding.
I could have used a bit more character development and a little less clichés. Focusing on Darwan and Wendy more would do at least as much to carry the message.