Efforts to depict people of disparate backgrounds appreciating and learning from each other are commendable, but Learning To Drive looked as though it would be doing it by the numbers. As it turns out, I was wrong: something by the numbers would have resulted in a sadly predictable film with a cathartic climax, and what we got instead was a movie that can’t be bothered to flesh out its own plot points. Learning To Drive wanders aimlessly through its characters’ lives without any destination in mind, suffocating us in driving metaphors even as it fails to actually say anything.
Somewhere in New York, Darwan (Ben Kingsley) is giving driving lessons to new drivers, driving cabs, and routinely facing prejudice as a devout Sikh. One night driving his cab, he picks up Wendy (Patricia Clarkson) as her marriage with her husband dissolves. The next day, her daughter encourages her to learn to drive; concurrently, Darwan realizes Wendy left an envelope in his cab. He brings it to her, and seeing he gives driving lessons, Wendy asks for his business card. As Darwan gives Wendy lessons in driving, the two struggle through their respective lives in the Big Apple, sometimes sharing their thoughts and fears.
Learning to Drive should be commended for delving into intense and mature content, but it does so without exploring the topics it touches on in any particular depth. We know that Darwan was once imprisoned for practicing his religion, but the film offers no context as to the political or religious conflicts in India that would have precipitated this. For Western viewers raised in the United States, it is unlikely many have even heard of Sikhism, much less could tell you anything about it. The movie acknowledges the Orientalist attitude in the United States that treats everything east of Greece as identical (in the film law enforcement and passersby frequently harass Darwan for his appearance and dress), yet it offers no greater context, simply letting us know “Darwan faces harassment at times”. It seems aware that Orientalism is bad, but can’t be bothered to state what Orientalism even is. It provides no greater detail, effectively glossing over both an entire aspect of Indian life and culture, an entire subset of people living in the United States, and how this has affected the course of Darwan’s life and his development as a person. One could make the argument that explaining more about his cultural and religious background is unnecessary to the plot, regardless of the foreknowledge on the part of the viewer, but it is established repeatedly that Darwan’s beliefs are both deeply felt and very important to him, informing his conscience and day-to-day life.
It seems a tremendous oversight to languish over scenes of Wendy moping about the end of her marriage and making pathetic attempts to seduce her husband when Darwan is easily the more compelling character. And goodness, is he ever. Darwan faces raids searching for illegal immigrants in his home, struggles with finding ways to connect to his wife that he met for the first time the day before they married, and silently ponders how he will protect his nephew from Immigration; by contrast, Wendy suffers the upper middle class embarrassment of her husband leaving her for a coworker. Darwan was imprisoned for years for practicing his religion, his family persecuted, and now he can never return to India lest he lose his political asylum; Wendy is nervous about driving for a reason that is never established. Darwan was once a university professor with a Masters degree, now reduced to driving cabs and teaching student drivers to make ends meet; Wendy is a literary critic who unwittingly praises the work of the woman who slept with her husband. Wendy is implied to have had a tough time growing up in Queens, but since she turned out to be a professional Academic living in NYC, it’s clear she’s relatively affluent. The film wants to treat these two as equals in suffering, but it’s difficult to care about Wendy’s struggles when they are placed in direct contrast with Darwan’s.
Perhaps if the film had bothered to flesh out Wendy’s lacking childhood, or offered a reason for her absurdly irrational fear of driving (even if that reason was simply “Wendy has an anxiety disorder”); perhaps if the movie troubled itself with telling us what happened to the man she slept with on the first date, why her sister is Samantha Bee, or how she actually coped with the divorce, someone somewhere might be motivated to care. Subplots are introduced and never again addressed, and indeed main plot points that are never explored, make it nearly impossible to root for Wendy in the face of Darwan’s adversity, throwing all sense of balance out the window without a moment’s hesitation. As it is, we only have Patricia Clarkson’s not insignificant performance to generate empathy for her, and even then her performance has the difficult task of matching Ben Kingsley. Isabel Coixet’s direction tries its damnedest to correct this imbalance, with some success, but the screenplay had the tone scattered in a thousand directions before filming even began.
The film comes to a painfully dissatisfying close, most of the conflicts it has introduced going largely unresolved, or resolved offscreen, and inserts a dash of romantic tension between the two leads that comes out of fucking nowhere. The movie closes with the two of them off to their separate lives, having more or less agreed to never see each other again. What were the themes of this movie? Understanding? Commitment? Perseverance? I have absolutely no idea. The only concrete statement the film seems to offer is the fact that people often face challenges in life, which, like the entirety of the film itself, feels like the first half of a two part sentence. It seems as though the film is incapable of tying up its own loose ends, and looks to the audience with sad eyes to fill in the blanks for it. Well, I’m not going to do that, Learning To Drive: I’m sorry to say it, but you were a mess.Liked This? Share It!