If a film constantly, skilfully avoids the pitfalls and potholes of treacherous territory, if it swerves time and again away from “bad” just in the nick of time, is that the same as the film being actually good? This is the question that plagued us when watching Isabel Coixet‘s slight, wholly non-essential, yet surprisingly not-annoying, “Learning to Drive.” An amiable, well-meaning story of fellow feeling extending across social boundaries, there’s a kind of built-in worthiness to the premise that suggests something a lot duller and more tin-eared than Coixet’s film delivers. Call it the Best Exotic Marigoldization of this niche subgenre (middle-aged-and-older white folks getting a new lease on life through exposure to previously unexplored cultures and philosophies), but with any logline involving a recently separated New York woman who finds comfort in an unlikely friendship with her India-born Sikh driving instructor, the specter of Orientalism and/or cultural condescension looms large.
But it’s a tendency that Coixet’s film, solidly, competently shot and edited (by luminary Thelma Schoonmaker, no less), almost never succumbs to, instead delivering mild insights into its two central characters as erratic, differentiated individuals rather than mere proxies for the polar-opposite lifestyles and world views they happen to be part of. The result falls somewhere between crowd-pleasing mainstream, broad-strokes escapism and true arthouse character study (tending to the former), but as the type of film you might want to bring your mother or grandmother to, it is certainly better judged and less patronizing than the pablum that older audiences are usually served. Essentially, we were just super glad this wasn’t “Ruth & Alex.”
Wendy (Patricia Clarkson, on whom this character feels as made-to-measure as the pencil skirt she wears) is a book critic (scripted by Sarah Kernochan, the film is based on an essay by Katha Pollitt) whose husband of 21 years leaves her abruptly, a scene which unfolds in the back of a cab driven by Darwan (Ben Kingsley). Darwan is now a naturalized citizen, having been a refugee from India, who, by pointed contrast with Wendy’s big, airy Manhattan brownstone, lives in a dingy Queens basement shared by his undocumented nephew (Avi Nash, not hard to look at) and several other young Indian men, and who works two jobs. The second of these is as a driving instructor; Wendy cannot drive. And so when Darwan returns to her a package she had left in his cab, this time driving his dorky driver’s ed car, Wendy, having just been encouraged to go visit her daughter (Grace Gummer ) in rural Vermont, takes his card.
From there the film unfolds in gently soapish manner as Wendy and Darwan bond despite themselves, and each helps the other, often unwittingly, to negotiate their separate lives. No attempt is made to apologize for or complicate either character’s fundamental decency: they are both very nice people, and for all their differences, they are mutually respectful. It’s not like Wendy has some deep-seated racism to overcome, on the contrary, she is a very bright, well-educated liberal white woman who is rightly horrified and protective/confrontational in response to the instances of racism that are lobbed Darwan’s way.
Similarly, Darwan may gently point out in response to Wendy’s incomprehension over his impending arranged marriage that her Western way has not left her particularly happy, but, in part due to the impeccable, sensitive playing by both actors, there’s no sense of brinkmanship. Wendy and Darwan are from different cultures, but they do not necessarily represent anything but themselves — Wendy, a word-obsessed bookworm facing a sudden unwelcome new start; Darwan, a lonely, hardworking exile who marries newly arrived Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury) but struggles to find common ground with her after.
Let’s not overstate: it’s within very narrow parameters — those of the older-skewing, cross-cultural dramedy — that “Learning to Drive” can be considered above average. Taken in the grand scheme of things, it’s still a pretty unremarkable object, and there are moments when its generally well-considered, tasteful story stumbles, as with a romantic declaration late on. Not only unnecessary, it feels wildly out of character and willfully inserted to make sexier a relationship that is much more interesting, hopeful, and believable, when it’s simply the kind of love you fall into with a new friend. But mostly it has warmth, it has flashes of insight, it even has moments of wit, all it really lacks is edge — which it lacks in large, whopping, huge amounts. “Could’ve been worse” is possibly the faintest praise one can possibly lavish on any piece of art, but if what “Learning to Drive” is is too anodyne to get overly excited about, there is a potential flood of relief at what it is not — relief that can almost feel like affection. [B-/C+]