Learning to Drive full movie review - A giant metaphor for individualism, overcoming odds, and trying something new
Learning how to drive was one of the most nervewracking and uneasy periods of my young life; I fondly recall being kept up at night on the day before I was scheduled to drive
in my driver's ed class, in addition to finding every excuse in the book not to drive when my parents suggested I drive them somewhere in order to gain practice. Now, I drive nearly every day, to school, to the movies, to the library, or to arbitrarily get something to eat; the act has went from being a frightening experience where I was so concerned about the next move I was going to make on the road that I'd forget to breathe to being second nature. At the end of it all, driving is about training yourself to multitask and develop a whirlwind of other skills, such as predicting the actions of others around you and attempting to remain control in a situation where numerous other forces are operating, both for and against you.
Isabel Coixet's "Learning to Drive" works, for one, because it nails this fear and takes the common fears, mistakes, shortcomings, and paranoia of learning how to drive and rolls them all into one, overarching metaphor that is the basis for a culturally diverse film. We open by focusing on Darwan Singh Tur (Ben Kingsley), a gentle Sikh man who works as a driving instructor by day and a cab-driver by night in the city of New York. One night, his first customers are Ted (Jake Weber) and Wendy (Patricia Clarkson), who enter the car in the middle of a marital debacle. Ted has just revealed to Wendy that he has been cheating and will take the steps to divorce her after twenty-one years of marriage. Wendy drowns in her tears, with questions that hurt to ask in a situation that comes out of nowhere and doesn't make any sense to her whilst Ted is simply looking towards his next excursion with his young flame. While this occurs, Darawn sits passively, sympathetic and quiet, simply watching the breakdown of what looked to be a happy marriage at one point in time.
In an effort to help Wendy in any way he can, Darawn stops by her home one day and offers to give her driving lessons, to which she accepts. After much convincing later on, Wendy finally goes for it; she never had to learn how to drive in her life due to her husband always being able to, in addition to the numerous methods of transportation available in New York. Nonetheless, Wendy takes it upon herself to learn how to drive, and Darawn's patience and attention to detail works to help relax her. Darawn's life is also heavily examined in the film; he's currently living in a small loft and is awaiting to marry Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury) from his home country of India. Darawn's devout Sikh beliefs, heavily reliant on selflessness and the golden rule, keep him in line in life, and along the way, he reveals his insights to Wendy and how they bear similarities to driving.
As you can hopefully see, the film is a giant, unapologetic metaphor for individualism, overcoming odds, and trying something new. After seeing Joe Swanberg's "Digging for Fire," which also had a fairly obvious metaphor, this result is handled in a cleaner way simply because the metaphor here has many layers and levels of examination, where the former was fairly surface. Screenwriter Sarah Kernochan makes the film human on a level I wasn't expecting; instead of entirely relying on the breezy chemistry of Kingsley and Clarkson, both of whom are very believable here, we get a personal look at their characters' lives, which only helps make their time together shine. Most films seem to assume that pairing two unlikely actors together gets the job done, but Kernochan and Coixet make sure to humanize both sides of the spectrum here, so as to provide audiences with a rounded view of the actors' chemistry.
A lot of "Learning to Drive" also reminds of last month's "Ricki and the Flash," a film about a mother recognizing her shortcomings with her children and how her constant desire to better herself has made her generally hated by those around her. That extreme isn't necessarily present here, but self-hatred on a character's behalf for what seemed right in the moment certainly is. Wendy spent most of her life relying on someone else, in addition to writing off the cares and needs of her husband as background noise to her personal life, that she paradoxically forgot to make a life of her own. Her concept of self is completely disjointed and she has no one to blame but herself. Finally, she takes responsibility to learn a difficult new skill through the help of a truly commendable soul.
"Learning to Drive" is fairly simple, but like other adult dramas like "Ricki and the Flash" and "A Walk in the Woods," is a film that, I feel, should serve as obligated viewing for some. You know the type; the people that constantly complain Hollywood "don't make films like they used to," allegedly neglecting tender human portraits and relatable dramas for special effects driven schlock. This film, its low theater count, and relatively minimal box office numbers (like the two aforementioned films) practically state that if you're not going to see a film like this, then don't keep asking for it. It's here and it's waiting.