Learning to Drive

Posted on September 3, 2015 at 3:25 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and sexual content
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Tense emotional confrontations, car accident
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 4, 2015
Copyright 2015 Broad Green Pictures
Copyright 2015 Broad Green Pictures

Katha Pollitt’s wry but bordering on scathing essay about taking her first driving lessons in her 50’s, after her partner of seven years left her for another woman has been turned into a softened but still trenchant film. Patricia Clarkson plays Wendy, a less ethnic and more friendly-sounding name than Katha, and perhaps a reference to the “Peter Pan” character who had an adventure and then returned home to grow up.

Wendy is a New York intellectual who writes book reviews and appears on NPR. We first see her devastated and furious because her husband, Ted (Jake Weber), has taken her to dinner so that he can tell her in a public place that he is leaving her for another woman after 21 years of marriage. Their cab driver, a turbaned Sikh named Darwan (Sir Ben Kingsley) pretends not to hear as he takes them home, or rather takes Wendy home. Ted is not going back there anymore. When she realizes that a divorce will mean they have to sell their home, it is as painful for her as the end of the marriage. “It’s like asking me to move out of me.”

Later, Darwan realizes that Wendy has left an envelope in his cab. He returns it to her, and when she sees that he has a second job as a driving instructor, she impulsively hires him to teach her to drive. She has never had to learn; she lives in Manhattan and her husband drives. But their daughter (Grace Gummer) is living on a farm, and if Wendy wants to visit her, she will have to get a driver’s license and a car.

At first, Wendy assumes that Ted will come back. But, as Darwan tells her, she has to learn to be more attentive to what is going on around her. “Teach yourself to see everything.” He also cautions her to be mistrustful of other drivers. She begins to realize that this applies to her life as well as to driving. Meanwhile, Darwan struggles with his nephew, illegally in the US and living with him, and with his sister, back in India, who is trying to arrange a marriage for him. As Wendy’s marriage is dissolving, Darwan is agreeing to marry someone he has never met, Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury).

Beautiful performances by everyone, especially Clarkson and Choudhury, give this story a luminous glow and touches throughout remind us that this is a story told by women. Director Isabel Coixet (do not miss her exquisite “My Life Without Me”) and screenwriter Sarah Kernochan are wise about the connections women make with one another and how they talk about the men in their lives. That applies to Jasleen as well as Wendy. This is more than a story of a woman learning to pay attention and to “taste” a parking space; it is a story of Darwan and Jasleen as well, who have their own challenges of seeing and tasting.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong and crude language, sexual references and explicit conversations, and brief nudity.

Family discussion: What did Wendy learn about “tasting” and paying attention that helped her beyond the driving lessons? Why did she tell her daughter to go back to the farm? What will happen with Darwan and Jasleen?

If you like this, try: “An Unmarried Woman,” “84 Charing Cross Road,” and “Happy-Go-Lucky”

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