When a film captures a city, really captures it, there is a wonderful transformation that occurs to the story it tells. The tale somehow becomes more rich, more believable. Most films consciously homogenize their setting so that it will be more accessible for the audience. Woody Allen (An Irrational Man) has famously stood by his version and experience of NYC, and now cities around the world, which has limited his reach, if not the respect he’s earned over the years.
Learning to Drive taps into sensibilities that are core NYC ideas… even though the cast is at extremes on the economic scale from one another. It is also done with a clear and sympathetic, rather than a wry and sympathetic eye. In other words it is more of a traditional light romance story, but with some nice doses of truth and a perspective that many of us would never see so intimately.
The story cleverly pulls together two people who would otherwise never notice one another and who desperately need the other’s perspective on life. It is somewhat predictable, though not entirely, but satisfying in its path and resolution.
Patricia Clarkson (Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials), as a mentally bound academic who has never learned to drive, captures the segment of the population who helped make a single New Yorker cover a lasting icon. While Ben Kingsley (The Walk) is the voice of reason and stability is a lost and isolated man who provides a window into a very different way to live.
There is an ease between the two actors that keeps everything moving along, even when the subject matter is less easy. Their lives couldn’t be more different, nor more similar. Kingsley is much more nuanced than Clarkson in this story, but in their time together, he is a gracious acting partner for her. Despite that, I never quite buy into Clarkson, though I still enjoyed the story.
Sarita Choudhury (Hologram for the King), on the other hand, does a wonderful job of creating a woman who has to restart her life in unfamiliar surrounds, in every sense. For a good deal of the film, she does this without lines but manages to speak volumes.
In smaller roles, Grace Gummer (Ricki and the Flash) and Jake Weber (Dangerous Beauty) act as catalysts for Clarkson and help fill in detail for the story. Gummer, though good in her part, struggles to play as young as she is supposed to be.
Director Coixet has a very even hand for the story. It manages to feel both familiar and new, even when predictable. But it isn’t the end that matters in this film, but the journey, as the title suggests. The story itself, from writer Kernochan, is apparently adapted from an article I can find no reference for, though it is credited as such in the closing credits. Her script construction is rather nice, even if there are open ended bits and the dialogue is occasionally obvious. Despite any of its weaknesses, you can’t help but feel energized by the end, and full of possibility for life and relationships.