"I see in a friend someone I respect for qualities I admire and someone who, however surprising I find it, respects me for gifts I have trouble seeing in myself. I feel my own quality in the presence of a sterling friend."
— Joan Chittister
Spiritual teachers have pointed out that friendship can be more self-giving than other kinds of love. To portray this mysterious process on the screen is a very difficult thing to do. Director Isabel Coixet and screenplay writer Sarah Kernochan have accomplished this rare feat with Learning to Drive, a radiant, subtle, and engrossing story about the blossoming friendship between a New York book critic and a Indian-American driving teacher.
Wendy (Patricia Clarkson) is an upper-middle class critic whose 21-year marriage to Ted (Jake Weber) has ended; he has left her for another woman. Wendy feels a mixture of anger, disappointment, loss, and guilt over the separation from her husband. In the back of her mind, she hopes they can get back together but he is clear about not loving her any more.
During this difficult period in her life, Wendy decides on a whim to learn how to drive. She hopes to then visit her college-age daughter Tasha (Grace Gummer) in Vermont. Her driving teacher is Darwan (Ben Kingsley), a Sikh Indian and part-time cab driver who taught college back in India. Darwan is a very patient and centered man who has spent time in prison for his religious beliefs. He treasures the political asylum he won in the United States. As a result this generous man shares his apartment in Queens with illegal Indian immigrants. He also plays the role of mentor to his nephew (Avi Nash).
Darwan, like Wendy, is in a time of transition. He is about to marry Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury), a shy Sikh woman from a neighboring village who has been chosen by his family to be his bride. After they become a couple, he is quite uneasy about her lack of education and reclusive nature.\
As the driving instructor for Wendy, Darwan is deeply sensitive, understanding, and tolerant of her fears of bridges and other impediments to navigating a car through one test after another. He has integrated his Sikh practices — attention, kindness, sharing and peace — into his teaching others how to drive.
The screenplay by Sarah Kernochan beautifully captures the intimacy which blooms between Wendy and Darwan as their friendship deepens. He restores the self-confidence that she had lost, and she shares with him some helpful advice on dealing with his wife's insecurities. Wendy uses the word "faith" to describe what he has given her. Its meaning in this context is conveyed by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi: "Faith is a mind-move, a radical shift in awareness."
The final jewels in Learning to Drive are the outstanding performances by Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley as two friends who forge inward ties of transformation that will never be broken or forgotten.