Learning To Drive is that rarest of films, one produced, written, edited and directed (Isabel Coixet) by women. The film opens with Wendy (Patricia Clarkson) and her husband Ted (Jake Weber) arguing in the back of a taxi driven by Darwan (Ben Kingsley). Ted has been cheating on Wendy and is leaving her as she tearfully begs him to stay. Darwan is very uncomfortable leaving the distraught Wendy at her apartment. She has left a package in the cab, and he returns the next day to give it back. This time he’s driving his driving school car, and she asks for his card.
Wendy, a book critic, lives in New York City and has never learned to drive. She always had Ted to drive her to visit her daughter who lives in Vermont, or her sister (delightfully played by Samantha Bee) who lives in Connecticut. The inability to drive metaphor for her live is hit a bit over our heads, but still, Patricia Clarkson is such a fantastic actress that she elevates whatever script she’s in.
When Wendy’s daughter tells her she’s going to be moving to Vermont, far from a train station, that pushes Wendy to call Darwan and start driving lessons.
The film is more focused on Wendy’s life, but does give us background on Darwan. We learn he is a Sikh immigrant here in the US for political asylum. The police raid his home and his nephew Preet hides in a cupboard, which I was gathering meant he had overstayed his student visa? I wanted to know a bit more about the nephew’s story, and not just because the actor was a dreamboat.
There were some great cameos in the ninety minute dramedy film. John Hodgman is a car salesman, and the most delightful surprise is that Samantha Bee plays Wendy’s suburban sister. She has some great zingers as she urges Wendy to move on from Ted.
Darwan’s sister arranges for him to marry a woman from his village. He is disappointed to find that Jasleen is not educated, and is timid in her new urban home.
Darwan tells Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury) that she is in America now and they will only speak English to each other. This leads Jasleen to hardly talk at all. Jasleen and Darwan are supposed to be Punjabi, and it would have been more natural for them to at least speak some of that language in private. In reading about the film after watching it, I learned that neither Ben Kingsley or Sarita Choudhury can speak Punjabi. Still, Sarita Choudhury was great in her scenes as Jasleen conveying much just through her expressions.
Darwan and Wendy develop a friendship over their driving lessons, and because she rear ends another car during a lesson, she ends up coming to the airport with him to pick up his bride. He contrasts the intellectual conversations he can have with Wendy to his home life with his new bride, still basically a stranger to him.
I enjoyed this “almost” romantic comedy. I watched it on Amazon Prime. It’s free to watch if you have a Prime membership. Four stars out of five mainly for the wonderful performances.