Wendy (Patricia Clarkson) loves words. She always has. Unfortunately, her job as a New York literary critic took precedence over building up her marriage. Yet, she’s still shocked when Ted (Jake Weber), her husband of 21 years, suddenly leaves her for another woman. This leaves Wendy in a pickle as she relied on him as a driver. Although the thought terrifes her, she decides to learn to drive in order to visit Tasha (Grace Gummer), her college-age daughter, in Vermont.
Enter Darwan (Ben Kingsley). An Indian-American, part-time New York cabbie and part-time driving instructor, Darwan is a gentle soul, devoted Sikh, and exudes calmness. Darwan witnesses the marriage-ending argument between Wendy and Ted in the back seat of his cab then kindly returns a package Wendy absentmindedly left there that fateful night.
Coming from opposite cultural worlds, Wendy and Darwan develop an unlikely friendship as they spend time in the car. Wearing colorful turbans, Darwan experiences daily racial profiling. When Wendy causes an accident, the men involved harass Darwan until Wendy steps in, berating them for their prejudice. She respects Darwan even though she does not understand why Darwan has entered into an arranged marriage with Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury), a woman he doesn’t even know.
Neither Wendy nor Darwan are perfect people but then, who is? After being set up on a blind date, Wendy sleeps with the guy. Darwan critiques almost everything his new bride does but each, in their own way, searches for meaning in their lives.
Learning to Drive, directed by Isabel Coixet, represents a refreshing break from all the big-budget films of the summer. Its quiet conversations show two people interacting and growing close without the intrusion of romance. Yes, there are some sparks flying, but Wendy gently turns down Darwan’s dinner invitation, showing great integrity. She tells him, “You’re a good man,” and she doesn’t want to get in the way of his developing relationship with his new wife. Darwan takes the opportunity to look at Jasleen with kinder eyes and dedicates himself to working on their relationship.
Although there are a few morality issues with this film from a Catholic perspective, I believe Learning to Drive, for a thoughtful adult audience, could be a lead-in to a wonderful conversation about attitudes toward life, especially in the face of loss. Loss does not mean only death. We each experience little losses every day. How do we deal with them? Do we ask for help from God and others? Do we wallow in the sadness or do we work though it? How we respond has much to do with the way we see life. Are we like Darwan, calm and generally positive, or negative and insecure, like Wendy? No matter where we fall, we always have the power to change for the better with each choice we make.