As a native New Yorker who never learned how to drive until a move to L.A. forced me to get my license, I understand all to well the deep-seeded neuroses some people feel about getting behind the wheel. It is this conundrum which faces Wendy (Patricia Clarkson), the bourgeois protagonist of director Isabel Coixet’s charming, romantic dramedy, Learning to Drive.
We first meet Wendy in the back of a taxicab, mid-argument with her longtime husband Peter (Matt Salinger), whom she just found had been carrying on an affair with a work colleague. When Peter storms off, a crushed Wendy is left sniveling and heartbroken in front of Sikh cab driver Darwan (Ben Kingsley), who happens to moonlight as a driving instructor. Later that week, Darwan returns to Wendy’s Upper-Westside apartment to return some personal items she forgot in his cab, only to find the “refined” woman on the wrong end of a depressive bender. Upon learning that Wendy doesn’t know how to drive, Darwan convinces her to sign up with him for lessons.
Though Drive could have the makings of a broad, situational comedy, screenwriter Sarah Kernochan and her stars wisely ground the laughs in rich reality, starting with Kingsley’s earnest, portrayal of Darwan’s Sikh culture. As it turns out, Darwan in fact lives in a small apartment filled with other Sikh refugees, including his young nephew Preet (Avi Nash). As the eldest of the bunch, Darwan has a hefty burden on his shoulders—one which is only intensified when the NYPD raids his home, taking numerous illegal Sikh refugees into custody. In less deft hands, these cultural truisms might register as crude stereotypes, but Kingsely consistently imbues his turn as Darwan with well-researched detail, and a layered charm which transcends ethnic boundaries.
As Darwan teaches the nervous Wendy how to navigate the big apple on wheels, the unlikely pair open up to each other about life, love, and their pasts. Eventually, Darwan and Wendy end becoming one another’s closest confidante, but before things can get romantic, their bond is complicated by the arrival of Darwan’s would-be arranged bride, Jasleen (Sarita Choudhary). Will Darwan be able to guide Wendy through her driver’s test while balancing his ever-chaotic home life? Anyone who’s ever seen a light rom-com before will probably know the answer before it’s posited, but that doesn’t make the proceedings any less enjoyable!
Indeed, Drive may not reinvent the wheel (pun very much intended), but it at least adds a diverse, humanistic spin to a familiar set-up. Much as in Darwan’s Sikh beliefs, restraint in all things is holy, and this kind, gentle film proves that point through its subtle, understated sense of humor. Be sure to check out Learning to Drive, in theaters now!