'We're Moving.'

Learning to Drive
(USA, 90 min.)
Dir. Isabel Coixet, Writ. Sarah Kernochan
Starring: Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley, Sarita Choudhury, Grace Gummer, Jake Weber

Ben Kingsley stars as Darwan and Patricia Clarkson as Wendy in Broad Green Pictures' Learning to Drive.
Linda Kallerus/Broad Green Pictures

“What happened?”
“We’re moving.”

Check the rear-view mirror and get ready to toot the horn, Learning to Drive coasts the summer into the mature season of fall with this refreshing comedy for adults. Learning to Drive comes to theatres after being one of the sleeper hits at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival where it was a surprise runner-up for the coveted People’s Choice Award. The unexpected honour proves that this delightful film is no Sunday drive. It’s a smooth ride.

Patricia Clarkson stars as Wendy, a well-to-do New Yorker who has a rude awakening when her husband, Ted (Jake Weber), leaves her for another woman after twenty-odd years of marriage. Ted’s departure, a final one after many false starts of man-opause, prompts Wendy to realize that she’s never been in the driver seat of her own life. She’s been the wife, the passenger, and the girl who always plays it safe. She sees that she lost sight of her husband and buried her nose in the books she reviews for a literary magazine (it happens), but her daughter Tasha (Grace Gummer, The Homesman) inspires her to change gears: Wendy realizes that she no longer has a husband to drive her where she wants to go.

Cue the cabbie, Darwan (Ben Kingsley), who drives Wendy home the night that Ted coldly dumps her at a restaurant. Darwan drives by night and teaches driving lessons by day to earn a modest living and support his family back home in India. His road test differs from Wendy’s in that he usually gets to drive without having a co-pilot in mind.

As Wendy and Darwan commence their driving lessons, Wendy grinds her gears with self-doubts. Darwan coaxes her out of neutral and into first gear by giving her subtle pushes of encouragement. Soon, she shifts on her own.

Learning to Drive offers a sweeter side to the teacher/student dynamic as the lovely performances by Clarkson and Kingsley put Wendy and Darwan on equal footing. They teach each other mutual lessons and the driving sessions progress with Darwan nicely encouraging Wendy to observe the life and traffic around her so that she can anticipate the next moves and react early, thus keeping herself safe and in control. Wendy, meanwhile, gives Darwan the right context on how to treat a wife with mutual respect. Darwan, a Sikh bachelor, awaits the arrival of his bride-to-be Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury, Midnight’s Children) and when she finally arrives, he’s unsure how to treat this being who comes without road lights or turn signals.

The script by Sarah Kernochan uses the driving lesson as an effective metaphor for gaining control over one’s life as Wendy and Darwan overcome their respective roadblocks. Learning to Drive finds both compassion and humour in the trauma of divorce that sends Wendy reeling like a hard stop on the brakes do, as early scenes show an angry protagonist who’s both vulnerable and seemingly defenseless against the man who shook up her life and embarrassed her. Clarkson’s confident and refreshingly optimistic performance—one of her better roles in recent years—fills Wendy with sparks as driving affords her agency and discipline. She’s funnier, bubblier, deeper, and friendlier as Darwan’s company and attentive lessons help her regain the independence she had long put in neutral. It’s a nice portrait of a person empowered by the freeing possibilities afforded by living alone, which is a bold take on relationships that few too films offer.

Darwan, similarly, comes into his own as Wendy’s recovery from the divorce teaches him to be attentive to Jasleen and her unhappiness in America. Kingsley’s reserved and dignified performance is almost imperceptibly funny with its dry humor and sharp timing. His instructions to Wendy are fun zingers, poignant for what they reveal about her and say about his ability to observe others. With Darwan, Learning to Drive gives audiences a stereotype they’ve seen before—the Indian cabbie—but the film gives him depth and humility to show how passengers take for granted about the person behind the wheel.  Some of the film’s post-9/11 brushes with Darwan and xenophobic ’Murricans stutter and start like a standard transmission, but Learning to Drive uses the parallel love lessons for Wendy and Darwan alike to create universal stories of mutual love, compassion, and respect. The film’s guiding message that a good drive is an observant one: Recognize the signs and anticipate the moves of others, and everyone arrives at their destinations safely.

Director Isabel Coixet (My Life Without Me) confidently takes audiences on a spin as she lets the strength of the performances and the subtle humour of the film create a winning romantic comedy and buddy movie alike. Learning to Drive signals a right turn for the movies as it gives a welcome berth for a mature comedy that’s by and about women alike, but also one that plays perfectly attune to the chemistry that women and men share in friendship and love alike. The film plays with the convention of the road movie, too, as Wendy and Darwan’s travels around the city take the route of a metaphorical journey, for they cover new territory, “tasting” the sounds and movements of the city in their ever-observational driving lessons. The final turn offers an unexpected twist for the underlying romance between the drivers, but Coixet, Clarkson, and Kingsley downplay the moment perfectly for a strong finish. Learning to Drive is a smart and funny film that leaves the viewer feel empowered and in control behind the wheel.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Learning to Drive opens August 28 in Toronto at the Varsity, in Vancouver at Fifth Avenue, and in Montreal at the Forum.

It opens in Ottawa at The ByTowne on Sept. 4.