Learning To Drive

We don’t often stay in our demographic, The Boy and I. Early on The Boy established that he prefers good movies, and beyond that he was unconcerned. If anything, the sort of superhero/action/shoot-em-up type films are regarded with considerable suspicion (which is part of what makes his love of Fury Road so endearing). Give him characters, an interesting plot with suspense, don’t rely to heavily on the shock twist ending! and he’ll come along for the ride.

In this case, it brought us to Learning to Drive, the tepidly received (68%/68% RT) film from director Isabel Coexit (My Life Without MeThe Secret Life of Words) and writer Sarah Kernochan (Somersby, 9 1/2 Weeks). This is the story of Wendy (Patricia Clarkson, The Station Agent, Lars and the Real Girl) whose faithless husband (Jake Weber, famous for “Medium” but I remember him from his caddish role in “Mind of the Married Man”) finally leaves her for good. Her college-age daughter (Grace Gummer, Frances Ha) is doing some sort of back-to-earth thing upstate and the newly, reluctantly liberated Wendy no longer has the means to visit her because she can’t drive.

Now, “can’t drive”. There’s a phrase no one would self-apply where I come from.

Sam Elliot, The Stranger
But then, there’s a lot about New York I don’t understand.

Fortuitously, her husband breaks up with her in a public restaurant which, if I may interject here—what the hell is that? You want to avoid a scene? Seriously? “I’m going to split with my wife of 20-odd years and the mother of my child, of course I don’t want a scene.” Sometimes, you know, you got a scene comin‘ is all I’m saying. Anyway, the fortuitous aspect of this is that they have to take a cab home, and that cab happens to belong to the wise Sikh Darwan (Ben Kingsley, Gandhi, Iron Man 3) who happens to give driving lessons when he’s not being a cabbie.

It’s a kind of brilliant idea, in its own patriarchal way: Darwan, as a driving instructor, is somewhat stern with hard rules about serious things, but he’s patient, attentive, polite and supportive. So, of course there’s an attraction. But the movie throws a curve ball in the form of instantaneous arranged marriages which we are conditioned to think are wrong even as our own culture is strewn with heartbreak and divorce. This adds an interesting dimension.

Where this movie shines: The acting, sure, but especially relationship between Wendy and Darwan. Darwan is wise, but the movie holds back from sanctifying him. The stress of meeting his new bride shows cracks in his normally cool demeanor. And then there’s the ending, which I wasn’t entirely sold on but gave Wendy a chance to complete her character arc. These are strong enough that The Boy and I would warmly recommend it: It is the point of the movie and it’s done well.

Ben Kinglsey and Patricia Clarkson brave Manhattan traffic in Learning To Drive.
This is from the scene where they chase Joe Biden around, running into every Dunkin’ Donuts and 7-11 ahead of him.

Where it’s weakest is in its half-hearted salute to various clichés. Wendy has a sister, Debbie (Samantha Bee, who does some fine voice work) who actually utters the words, “Why do you think they call it a job?” after declaring oral sex off limits. They share a cackle and a “Men! Can you believe those guys?”-moment which is just awful, as is a later scene with Debbie leading to an awkward sex scene between Wendy and a Tantric sex partner.

This is particularly awkward because where the movie really falls down is in communicating the passage of time. Here, it’s common to do driving lessons in the course of a couple of weeks. Even at once every two weeks, ten lessons is only three months. Even if she doesn’t start them right away, she’s in the middle of a painful divorce. Since when is that a good time to be “getting back on the horse”, as it were, especially with a guy she’s mildly bemused by at best?

We were able to overlook this stuff, though, because the core of the movie is solid, sensitive, and it offers an interesting angle on the whole love, romance, marriage theme. We were glad we checked it out.

Samantha Bee and Patricia Clarkson prepare to gripe about men and sex.
This scene is the “What about that airplane food?” of the female-empowering movie.

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