Saturday, September 12, 2015

Learning to Drive Shows Various Lives of Quiet Desperation and Hope

     Patricia Clarkson, arguably the leading movie character actress of her generation, finally gets the lead in the urban romantic adventure Learning to Drive.  She’s rock solid; I always know I’ll enjoy her wry, intelligent presence even if the rest of the movie or TV show doesn’t work.   She joins Eve Arden, Rita Moreno, Lee Grant, and Paula Prentiss and, on TV, Marla Gibbs, Laurie Metcalf, Christine Baranski, and Archie Panjabi in my pantheon of MVP support.  We thought the preview looked cute and Neil really wanted to see it.  I said I just hoped it wasn’t safe.  It wasn’t, which is all to the good.  It is a romance in the traditional sense of the term, not a rom-com.  I don’t want to reveal too much more than that, but I also don’t want to set up false expectations.

Kingsley and Clarkson Driving
     The initial setup is that Wendy Shields’ (Clarkson) husband dumps her and her daughter is farming in Vermont so she decides to learn to drive in order to visit her.  Darwin Singh Tur (Ben Kingsley) is the Indian born but naturalized American Sikh who teaches her.  That simplicity begins in veteran writer and director Sarah Kernochan’s script that builds complex character dimensions, while director Isabel Coixet (2008’s Elegy, a similarly small movie featuring mature emotions and terrific performances by Kingsley, Clarkson, and Penelope Cruz) maintains a placid surface with a roiling cultural context.  
Sarita Choudhury with Ben Kinsley and Avi Nash
     The movie doesn’t back off from how Sikhs are regarded in New York City in the post 9/11 landscape.  Neil thought it ironically fitting that we were seeing the movie on the fourteenth anniversary of that date especially as the movie feels like a reiteration of Rodney King’s, “Can’t we all just get along?”  Life is tough for immigrants in America – a land based upon immigration and that is underlined here, though no one ever whines about it.  Only one character expresses anger about it and she is privileged and American born.

Gummer and Clarkson
     Women make up the key creative team for this production and, though I hate to generalize or stereotype, their choices are more instinctive and emotionally realistic.  The scene between Wendy and Darwin after a meeting at a car dealership is beautifully handled in the writing, acting, directing, and editing by the legendary Thelma Schoonmaker.  The casting is exemplary including Sarita Choudhury as Darwin’s arranged bride leaving India for the first time and Jake Weber (the husband on TV’s The Medium) as Ted, who walks out.  
Samantha Bee and Patricia Clarson
Grace Gummer and Samantha Bee look like they really could be Clarkson’s daughter and sister, respectively.  Gummer, daughter of Meryl Steep and sculptor Don Gummer, has a gentler style than her relatives and 
Avi Nash
it’s a pleasure to see the acerbic Bee (The Daily Show) in a more relaxed setting.  I have to mention Avi Nash as Darwin’s nephew Preet because he has the looks and charm to be a romantic star if he can get the roles.

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