We take our mentors where we find them in life, though it’s not always apparent who’s teaching who.
That’s the case in “Learning to Drive,” a comic drama by Isabel Coixet that offers beautifully matched performances by Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley. They are strangers drawn together by coincidence and need, who become friends and confidantes.
Kingsley plays Darwan, a Sikh refugee from India who became a naturalized American citizen after arriving in exile in 2000 (“You got in just under the wire,” says an immigration official) and lives in Queens. By night he drives a taxi; by day he is a driving instructor.
As the film begins, he’s driving the taxi — and the couple in the backseat is coming apart. The husband, Ted (Jake Weber), tells his wife, Wendy (Clarkson), that he’s leaving her for another woman, then gets out of the cab and has the driver take Wendy to their brownstone on the Upper West Side.
But Wendy, a book critic, leaves a manuscript in the cab — and the next day, Darwan returns it, driving the “student-driver” car in which he teaches. Wendy, who has spent her life relying on Ted to drive, makes the split-second decision that she will be the tool of her own liberation and take lessons behind the wheel.
They develop a relationship that extends from Darwan’s calming, centering influence on Wendy’s nervous driving to Wendy’s wisdom in helping Darwan deal with the new bride (Sarita Choudhury) with whom he has arranged a marriage and imported from his village in India. A precise, proactive and organized man, he has no feel for the kind of interpersonal dynamic that husbands have with their wives, even if she is a woman he hasn’t met until the day before the wedding.
Wendy, meanwhile, is coping with all of the ripples from the impending divorce from Ted: figuring out a split of their property, learning to be on her own, dealing with the division of attention with her daughter (Grace Gummer). Unlike Darwan, she has floated through her life, assuming all the pieces will fit while she focuses on intellectual pursuits. She is flummoxed by the need to take control, until Darwan’s driving lessons teach her to focus on what is in front of her, even as she keeps her senses attuned to all that is around her.
Coixet creates two separate worlds here, each distinctive and detailed. Wendy’s is focused on a lifestyle, Darwan’s on life itself. He houses his nephew and several Sikh friends, all of whom are undocumented immigrants and in danger of being rounded up; his world is at once proscribed (by daily prayer rituals and the demands of working two jobs), even as the jobs themselves allow him to explore New York City on a daily basis. He is proactive — and can’t understand why his new bride, who doesn’t speak a lot of English, doesn’t simply take herself out and explore the city while he’s at work.
Wendy has built her life on assumptions — that her marriage will last, that her work will sustain her, that happiness is a given — and now must figure out how to move past that. Her encounters with Darwan have the effect of humanizing her: She can no longer retreat from reality and gaze down on life from a literary ivory tower.
The cast evinces a warmth and intelligence that never allows this film to slip into familiar tropes. Clarkson and Kingsley (who also acted together in Coixet’s “Elegy”) have delightful chemistry, with each consistently seeming to surprise the other at key moments. Clarkson’s angular beauty and expressive voice complement Kingsley’s more staccato delivery, her vulnerability softening his sharp edges.
“Learning to Drive” doesn’t offer grandiose revelations or earth-shattering emotions. Rather, it creeps up on you, eliciting laughs even as touches the heart. That makes it unique in the current cinematic landscape.