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February 11, 2016

Learning to Drive

by Franz Patrick


Learning to Drive (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Patricia Clarkson has an uncanny way of making you look at her whole being when she is on screen, a very necessary quality, one that elevates “Learning to Drive,” written by Sarah Kernochan and directed by Isabel Coixet, because, although a comedy, the picture is, in its purest form, a humanistic story. It revolves around two people, one a book critic named Wendy going through divorce and the other a driving instructor named Darwan (Ben Kingsley) who moonlights as a cab driver.

Clarkson’s character, in more than a handful of ways, is unlikable, understandable why her soon-to-be-ex-husband (Jake Weber) wants a divorce, but the performer’s magic comes in the form of making us want to know more about Wendy despite her temper tantrums. We get the impression that somewhere deep inside this privileged New Yorker is a person worth getting to know deeply, perhaps even relate with. Like all great actors, Clarkson has mastered the use of her eyes by means of communicating without words. Some of the most poignant scenes involve silence.

Wendy wishing to learn how to drive is an obvious symbolism but the material offers many layers to her sudden interest in getting behind the wheel. Although being able to drive means a way of becoming more independent, the picture makes the point that it will help her to move forward from her upcoming divorce. Furthermore, being able to drive requires control. Wendy, although a fully grown, successful woman, is clearly not in control of her life at this time. If she were, one could argue, she wouldn’t react so emotionally to every little annoyance or unexpected turn of events. Take notice of her acting like a child when she does not get exactly what she wants.

The picture is not without shortcomings. I winced during its moments of sitcom-like dialogue, particularly scenes that show Wendy and her friend. I was at a loss as to why the writer felt the need to have scenes that clearly pokes fun of a specific kind of woman when it is apparent that such is not the film’s forte. On the contrary, the film makes a point about trying to understand people whom we would otherwise judge based on how they looked or acted. These television-level quality of writing in these scenes stand out like a sore thumb.

There are a few editing choices that distract. Most frustrating are moments when it is best to observe Wendy undergoing an uncomfortable exchange or situation without interruption. Keep that camera as still as possible to create an impression of objectivity. Instead, various cuts are employed to show the protagonist’s face from different angles—executed so awkwardly, at some point I lost focus while paying attention to the dialogue.

And yet despite these limitations, “Learning to Drive” is absolutely worth seeing. It will likely appeal to those who enjoy simply listening to people speak. I found Wendy and Darwan’s connection as passionate, intelligent, mature, and human. They did not expect that their commonalities transcend seemingly important things like the color of one’s skin, gender, economic background, culture, where one lives in New York. The film creates a tender but realistic human portrait.

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