Two words immediately spring to mind while taking a detour through Learning to Drive: modest pleasures. They’re what the film's characters seek, whether they're sitting behind the wheel or walking along the footpath. They’re what the amiable, affectionate and earnest movie does as well.
A later-in-life attempt to hit the road gets the feature gently motoring along, with Wendy (Patricia Clarkson) the initially unlicensed party in question. The Manhattan-dwelling literary critic hadn’t previously had a reason to join the commuting masses; however, separating from her adulterous husband (Jake Weber) and seeking to visit her college-age daughter (Grace Gummer) inspires her to reassess her priorities — you're never too late to try something new, and all that.
Enter the kindly Darwan (Ben Kingsley), an Indian Sikh working as both a taxi driver and a driving instructor. He has his own personal problems, including his desire for matrimonial happiness with his arranged bride (Sarita Choudhury), as well his efforts to avoid the prejudice that follows his every move. Of course, he's also the wise teacher Wendy needs, even if she doesn't yet know it.
That this odd couple will cross paths isn’t a surprise in this introspective effort, nor is the friendship that reluctantly but eventually springs. Wendy and Darwan find commonality despite their differences, learn some obvious life lessons from each other and gain an appreciation of the little things that make their days worth enduring.
In fact, everything about Learning to Drive screams standard — and yet it's warm, sweet but never too saccharine too. Director Isabel Coixet, who has worked with both her leads before on the 2008 film Elegy, enjoys spending time in predictable yet thoughtful territory while contemplating well-fleshed-out characters.
There's a reason she has enlisted Clarkson and Kingsley again for this task, as based on an autobiographical New Yorker article by essayist Katha Pollitt. As often proves the case in most things either pops up in (witness this year's Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials and Self/Less, for example), they're a pleasure to watch. The former is gifted a role with more shades of complexity than the latter, but both offer rounded portrayals that span well beyond their alternatingly tentative and playful banter.
Though plenty of their dialogue serves up road references that cheesily double as nuggets of general life advice — reading the signs, taking in everything around you, and so on — their performances help brighten up a film that's largely confined within a car (and as visually constrained as that sounds). The scenery isn't the point, but the people looking at it. Yes, that's just another of Learning to Drive's modest pleasures.