Lead performances enliven dull script in ‘Learning to Drive’

Charles Liu

“Learning to Drive” is a lighthearted study of two characters and their clashing cultures. One is a white New Yorker, likable but uninteresting, and the other a Sikh who demands the audience’s investment.

The film’s lead performances are entertaining, its dialogue is reliably sharp and it is surprisingly sensitive to the plight of immigrants in the United States. However, the moments of insight in “Learning to Drive” may be too on-the-nose for some viewers, and its fairly standard plot occasionally drags it down.

The first character viewers meet is literary critic Wendy (Patricia Clarkson), who is going through a divorce. Her husband, Ted (Jake Weber), has cheated on her with a writer, but Wendy feels she’s not entirely blameless for their separation — she has focused so much on work that she’s neglected him for years.

After some urging from her daughter (Grace Gummer) to spend time with her on a farm outside New York City, Wendy decides to visit her. There’s just one problem with her plan — she doesn’t know how to drive. She always had her husband for that.

That’s where Darwan (Ben Kingsley) comes in. By day, he’s a driving instructor. By night, he drives a taxi around the hectic streets of New York, struggling to make ends meet and support his rebellious nephew. After a chance encounter brings them together, Wendy begins to take lessons from Darwan. Although their relationship starts on an awkward note, they grow closer and teach each other how to overcome their familial and personal troubles.

Clarkson livens the screen with energy and humor, elevating the generally shallow writing for her character Wendy. Kingsley complements her with subdued authority as Darwan, and he receives far more, and better, help from the script. “Learning to Drive” subverts expectations by giving the mentor figure issues he cannot resolve on his own, including an arranged marriage to an uneducated woman and racist attacks from other New Yorkers. The character’s inner turmoil and conflicts are enough to make up the plot of a whole other film.

Wendy’s driving lessons act as the film’s central metaphor for learning to be self-sufficient. It’s obvious and may cause some eye-rolling, but “Learning to Drive” aims to be a simply-told story that lets its actors, not the script, take the spotlight. Director Isabel Coixet and writer Sarah Kernochan dispense little nuggets of wisdom here and there without lecturing viewers too much, and they always sprinkle in humor to keep things mostly cheerful.

“Learning to Drive” has a few odd scenes that distract from the main story and do little to develop Wendy and Darwan. There’s a surreal moment where Wendy talks to her father in her imagination and laments how he abandoned her, but her father’s actions have zero consequence on her current plight and are never brought up again. Similarly, Darwan’s housemates are arrested for being illegal immigrants. Though Darwan has presumably lost close friends, the event occurs too early in the movie for audiences to care, rendering it empty rather than devastating.

Overall, “Learning to Drive” is a decently entertaining film that strives to teach lessons and ends up being a wholesome way to spend 90 minutes. In that regard, its engaging performances help it succeed, but without Clarkson and Kingsley, the picture would be a dull affair.