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'Learning to Drive' Takes the High Road

As teacher and student, Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley learn from each other

LEARNING TO DRIVE, Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson

Linda Kallerus/Broad Green Pictures

Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley star in 'Learning to Drive.'

Rating: R

Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

Stars: Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley, Grace Gummer

Director: Isabel Coixet

Warmhearted and bittersweet, Learning to Drive offers two fine screen actors as a pair who run parallel along life's highway for a time, smile and nod to one another, then peel off in opposite directions. Both are subtly changed by their passing encounter.

Patricia Clarkson is Tasha, a New York literary critic who has spent her entire life observing and passing judgment — even when it comes to her family. Suddenly abandoned by her husband, Tasha, a hard-core subway- and taxi-riding New Yorker, realizes she now has no one to drive her to Vermont to visit her daughter (Grace Gummer, who — like her sister, Mamie — will soon cease being referred to as Meryl Streep's offspring). So Tasha hires a kindly cabdriver named Darwan to teach her how to drive.

Darwan, an Indian immigrant whose beard and turban announce his Sikh heritage before he utters word one, is played by Ben Kingsley. Scrupulously honest and endlessly encouraging, his character treads dangerously close to a Little Goody Two-Shoes stereotype. Yet Kingsley expertly conveys Darwan's quiet anguish over his own personal issues: an apartment crammed with relatives and his pending arranged marriage to a woman he's just met.

The chief charms of Learning to Drive come within the confines of a car's front seats, as Tasha and Darwan negotiate not only the streets of New York but also their individual crises, alternately issuing challenges and offering heartfelt reassurance. Their mutual personal development toward seizing control of their lives (is it mere accident that Darwan's name is but one letter off from that of the father of evolution?) has us rooting for the pair to drive off into the sunset together. But writer Sara Kernochan (9 1/2 Weeks) and director Isabel Coixet (The Secret Life of Words) have something more thoughtful in mind.

The resulting film teeters uncomfortably between grownup love story and buddy picture. Still, fueled by its two mesmerizing performances, Learning to Drive takes us on an engaging and satisfying road trip.

Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media.

(Video) 'Learning to Drive' Movie Trailer: A soon-to-be divorced Manhattan writer takes driving lessons from a Sikh instructor with personal issues of his own.