“Learning to Drive” tells the story of a well-off Manhattan woman getting a divorce, who decides that it is time for her to fulfill the title of the film so that she can visit her daughter living on a farm in Vermont.
But more importantly, it sheds light on an overlooked community and helps bring about understanding of a rich culture that is often misunderstood.
Patricia Clarkson plays Wendy, a magazine writer who is in the midst of a divorce from her husband. It’s a particularly difficult breakup for her, and it comes with the bad news that she’s also going to have to move and she partially losses her mobility — she never learned to drive and she had relied on her husband to drive her around.
In what would be a meet cute in a lesser movie, a tearful Wendy is taken home by cabdriver Darwan (Sir Ben Kingsley, superb). He returns the next day in his other vehicle — the car he uses as a driving instructor — to return some items left in the cab from the night before.
A woman who wants to learn to drive? An instructor showing up at her door? Only in the movies!
Of course, “Learning to Drive” is inspired by a true story — an article from the New Yorker written by Katha Pollitt.
Darwan is a Sikh Indian refugee living in Queens who is about to meet the woman he is arranged to marry. His daily routine involves dealing with various hateful comments from people, which he handles through prayer. The Sikh community is portrayed so richly here, and one wishes we could spend much more time with Darwan and that world.
Kingsley and Clarkson, reuniting with their “Elegy” director Isabel Coixet, have many intimate scenes — discussions sitting shoulder to shoulder — about driving, relationships, racism and life.
The bond formed between Darwan and Wendy is of instructor and student and student and instructor. Conversations about relationships and driving are filled with metaphors and dual meanings.
“Learning to Drive” is a small movie about big themes, handled gently and perfectly.