‘Learning to Drive’
Isabel Coixet
Stars: Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

“Learning to Drive” is the story of a wealthy New Yorker (Patricia Clarkson) befriending a Sikh driving instructor (Ben Kingsley). But it’s not what you think. By that, we mean it’s not a White People’s Problems movie, with Clarkson’s Wendy — of all things, a moneyed literary critic — learning lessons from a man of a different ethnicity and culture. It doesn’t feature Wendy simply using her experiences with Kingsley’s Darwan to mend her own wounds, and Darwan isn’t there simply as a magical alien Other. It’s an equal split, caring equally about them as people, not just types. It’s as thoughtful and delicate with its Sikh characters as it is with its rich New Yorkers.

They do meet cute. Wendy runs into Darwan’s cab after her soon-to-be-ex-husband (Jake Weber), about to flee to his mistress, has done the same. She winds up hiring him to teach her how to drive, but when she’s not in his car the movie doesn’t forget about him. It follows him to Queens, home to Sikh and Indian enclaves, where he, a U.S. citizen due to being a political exile, watches as less legal roommates struggle to avoid deportation. He and Wendy connect, as do the reliably terrific Kingsley and Clarkson, and there are sparks, but it’s not quite a “Brief Encounter”-style tragedy of suppressed longing. What they have, whatever it is, goes deeper, beyond definitions.

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There are a couple moments when it feels “Learning to Drive” could go the other way, towards a mere flattering of its Western audience. Halfway through Darwan is greeted by Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury), sent from India for an arranged marriage. Wendy initially scoffs at this, but the film itself remains non-judgmental, allowing Darwan to retain parts of his culture that to those seeing it in America might seem foreign, if not evil. 

There’s tension in their marriage, but that’s part and parcel of “Drive”’s agile avoidance of condescension. It’s remarkably, refreshingly, perhaps surprisingly sensitive and respectful to its non-American characters, who exist entirely independently of Wendy’s world, with their own problems as well as joys. Indeed, the only offensive aspect is the concept of a Manhattanite wanting to clog the already bustling city streets with a vehicle not used as a taxi or Uber.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge