'Learning to Drive': Amiable Performances, Pedictable Path

Directed by:Isabel Coiet; Runtime: 90 minutes
Grade: C

We're fond of our vehicular metaphors. Never forgetting how to do something is associated with riding a bike. When things get uncontrollably bad in a person's life, they fly off the rails. As someone slows down with work or a relationship or anything in particular, that's described as pumping the brakes. Learning to Drive, the latest film from Isabel Coixet, uses the process of steering, observing, and stopping as a broad allegory for getting one's bearings after a tough time, where acclimating to the nuances and stimuli of operating a vehicle lines up with figuring out how to live under circumstances where one's life has drastically changed ... and a new skill-set is required to keep things going. Coixet's film delivers on what's expected after viewing the trailer for this small-scale indie, little more and little less, elevated by the dramatic prestige of Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson as they navigate the personalities of two people at forks in the road.

Learning to Drive abruptly enters the lives of a recent divorcee, Wendy (Clarkson), and a driving instructor, Darwan (Kingsley), created by the developments in Wendy's recently deteriorated marriage. As a New Yorker who frequently works from home as a literary critic, she never got around to learning how to drive across her fifty-some-odd years, relying on her husband (Jake Weber) for that duty. With him out of the picture and with a daughter (Grace Gummer) who both attends school and works some distance away, Wendy figures that it's time to learn so she can visit her daughter and maintain their relationship through the separation. To do this, she enlists the help of Darwan, a cab driver originally from India who copes with the day-to-day issues of being an Indian Sikh in the city. Through his instruction, they form an unlikely kinship centered on breaking the barriers -- mental and emotional -- that keep Wendy from grasping the details of getting used to driving; she, in turn, impacts Darwan's own perception of getting on with the responsibilities in his life.

Despite the limited scope of the scenario, Learning to Drive actually contains a fair amount of lively drama within how Wendy acclimates to life after her husband divorce -- and his promiscuity -- reflecting on the shaken state of her outlook as she reintegrates into her day-to-day activities and attempts to move on. Patricia Clarkson channels as much credibility as she can into the grieving divorcee, though the overwrought nature of her emotional crumbling and verbal explosions probably wouldn't feel as natural coming from most other actresses. Tempered by Clarkson's restrained, wispy poise, the divorce drama instead manages to become tender and earnest as she copes with lawyers, exchanges possessions, and resolves where she went wrong between her love for literature and her distance from the passionate side of her marriage. Cleverly-placed daydream sequences reflect upon her somber mental diversions while she does so, which offer a convincing glimpse at how and why she's struggling with her lessons.

Wendy's rapport with Darwan blooms in response to this dejected and reclusive attitude of hers, sparked by the instructor's compulsion to help others as a showing of gratitude for his own life. A warming and idiosyncratic bond develops, slowly growing from Darwan's insistence that his student continue on despite her transitional difficulties to their mutual communication about their struggles in getting on with their lives. On the steam of Ben Kingsley's stout dramatic presence, Learning to Drive attempts more ambitious endeavors through the amplified events in Darwan's everyday strain while living in the city and coping with his checkered past, linking him with suspect individuals. This adds a volatile, arguably unnecessary diversion from the film's tempered intentions, knocked off-balance with scenes of harassment and arrests that achieve little beyond shining a light on the instructor's ordeals, all mismatched with Wendy's relationship conflicts.

Learning to Drive is at its best while staying focused on that evolving metaphor that aligns driving with living and bonding with others, adding a meaningful spin to parallel parking, crossing a bridge, and overcoming the long-awaited test that proves someone's ready to travel on by themselves. Director Coixet places a lot of confidence in broad and undefined lapses through time -- given another dimension by Darwan's arranged marriage -- revealing how both Wendy and her instructor have changed since the beginning through shifts in the comfort of their body language and the tenor of their voices. Underneath the pair's realizations and the playfully meaningful symbolism, there's little novelty in where either of their stories end up, though. Formula and expectation navigate Learning to Drive through their stages of catharsis at a sluggish, albeit cordial pace, resulting in the kind of film that takes unnecessary detours and doesn't pick up speed to make up for the time consumed.

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