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Learning to Drive

September 4, 2015
Learning to Drive

When you watch a lot of movies, you start to get an idea of what makes them good or bad, or at least what makes them work for you or not. For myself, one of my common irritations is when characters do stupid things without motivation, just because the story itself wouldn’t work if they were smarter. It’s not that characters can’t make mistakes, but the story needs to justify the mistake, or at least provide cover. Going back to classical drama, hubris is a great way to push characters into stupid errors.

These days you’re more likely to notice this in genre pictures. It’s what’s behind the horror audience’s plaintive cry, “why would you go down into that basement!?” But it can happen just as often in straight-up middlebrow crowd-pleaser dramedies. And Learning to Drive is a great example.

Specifically, nobody in this movie has ever thought to ask the people close to them, “what is it that you want or need here?” It would be one thing if this were just part of the toxic dynamic between Wendy Shields (Patricia Clarkson) and her soon-to-be-ex-husband Ted (Jake Weber). They’ve also passed it to their relationship with their daughter, Tasha (Grace Gummer), who we find is no better in her own romantic life. But it’s everywhere, in every relationship we see, and it’s downright frustrating to see everyone keep making the same mistake without even the filmmakers seeming to understand that they’re doing it.

Wendy lives on the upper west side of Manhattan, and evidently has her entire life since she’s never learned to drive herself. Wendy and Ted’s ridiculously uncomfortable breakup happens in one of the cabs she uses to get around when Ted can’t drive her somewhere. In her distress, she leaves an envelope in the cab. The driver, Sikh immigrant Darwan Singh Tur (Ben Kingsley), finds it and returns it the next day on his day job as a driving instructor. Wendy takes his card, thinking if she learned to drive herself she’d be able to visit Tasha on the farm in Vermont where she’s staying for a few months.

Back around 2000, writer Sarah Kernochan said in an interview that she, “requires that female characters be very real, that they have all the dimensions that the male characters do.” Well, Wendy does have all the dimensions that Darwan does, which is “not many”, and they’re both laced with stereotypes. She’s a flibbertigibbet who falls to pieces at the drop of a hat, and who has evidently learned nothing about the human condition from her decades-long career as a literary critic. He’s a Magical Person of Color with her, preternaturally calm and collected, but emotionally unavailable when his arranged wife, Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury), arrives from Punjab.

Of course, the driving lessons turn out metaphorical, standing in for the emotional lessons Wendy has to learn. Largely, they take the form of “be present”, which I agree is good advice. If only the lesson were actually learned. Wendy gets her cathartic moment when she admits she hasn’t been present in her life, but there’s nothing to exemplify actual personal growth and change in her behavior. Darwan makes adjustments to be literally, physically present more with Jasleen, but they still come as dictates for how he believes things should be. He’s still not emotionally present and responding to her expressed needs.

Clarkson and Kingsley are undeniably fine actors, but they’re doing a good job of acting in a bad story. Good characterizations can’t help against a backdrop shot through with pandering clichĂ©s: Wendy’s “thank goodness we women don’t have sexual feelings or desires like those piggish men do” group hug with her sister; the cultural tourism of Darwan’s visits to his temple that provide all of the Orientalism with none of the actual Orient. Learning to Drive plays hard towards what it thinks its audience wants, but unsurprisingly never bothers to ask them what they need.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.

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