Learning to Drive is a failure, but not in the way you may be thinking. It does not fail to accurately tell a story or create an emotional response; it does so with clunky but adequate results. Instead Learning to Drive fails to realize what the more meaningful story is within the film.
Learning to Drive starts with Darwan (Ben Kingsley). He lives in Queens, works both as a driving instructor and a taxi driver. He is calm and confident, which he attributes to being Sikh. One night in his cab he gets a fare as the man is leaving a restaurant. Ted (Jake Weber) has just told his wife, Wendy (Patricia Clarkson) he is leaving her. Ted tries to make a quick getaway in Darwan’s taxi, but instead the hysterical Wendy piles into the car too, begging and pleading with her husband. After Darwan drops Wendy at home, and returns the car to the dispatcher he discovers that she left a package behind in her emotional frenzy. A few days later Darwan returns it to her in his driving instruction car just after Wendy’s daughter pleads with her to get her driving license and be more independent, now that Wendy is all alone. What a wonderful coincidence!
From here the plot plods along with little interest or fanfare. Wendy comes to grips with the reality that her marriage is now completely over. Darwan teaches Wendy how to drive, and slowly introduces her to the Sikh religion and culture. They have the occasional culture clash and celebratory popsicle without anything terribly interesting happening.
Wendy is a highly problematic character. One minute she is a confident career literary critic, able to express herself beautifully and describe her lifelong love affair with word, the next minute she is an ineloquent mess who is yelling at other cars and honking her horn. She sways from wanting her husband back and throwing herself at him, to sleeping the day away in an Ambien haze. A script with a clearer vision of what it would be to have a woman’s life upended could have balanced these emotional tsunamis, but there is no rhyme or reason to Wendy’s odd behavior. She just acts however the scene calls for, with little regard to building her as a complete character. It is frustrating as Clarkson does a good job of performing here; it is the writing and direction that steers Wendy wrong.
Also, the amount of investment into Wendy’s driving ability that this film asks the audience to create is absurd. Learning to Drive never seems aware of the fact that driving is a widespread skill that the vast majority of the adult population has mastered. Rather than showing some awareness of the absurdity of Wendy’s predicament, the film instead asks us to believe all of her meltdowns. When a grown woman freaks out about going on a bridge, there needs to be some reflection of normalcy in the film’s treatment of her fears to make it relatable. Here, there is none.
Despite these flaws, the most glaring failure of the film is its blindness to the value of Darwan’s love story. Towards the second half of the film we learn that Darwan’s sister is arranging a marriage for him from their home in India. Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury) arrives in America the day before her wedding to Darwan. She has never met him, speaks only passing English, and cannot read. Though Darwan tries to be as accommodating as he can to this complete stranger, they have nothing in common and Jasleen spends her days alone and frightened in their basement apartment. Slowly, with some blunt encouragement from Darwan, Jasleen begins to leave the apartment. She makes some friends, and visits temple on her own. Darwan watches as his beautiful bride comes into her own and begins to find happiness in this completely unfamiliar land.
How can we be expected to care whether or not an affluent, older, white woman, with a poorly developed character arc, gets her driver’s license when there is a much better story unfolding? By introducing a sweeter, and more honest story, Learning to Drive makes me wish we had never met Wendy. Her story is self-indulgent and uninspiring. The film should have focused on Jasleen and Darwan, or should have at least had the decency to not show us what could have been.
Director: Isabel Coixet
Film Length: 90 minutes
Release Date: August 28, 2015
Distributor: Broad Green Pictures