Wrong Turn: Learning to Drive Loses its Way

Wrong Turn: Learning to Drive Loses its Way

Unlike the bracing feminist essay it is based on, Learning to Drive struggles to move beyond fantasy and stereotypes.

A scene from Learning to Drive (Broad Green Pictures)

Early on in her wrenchingly funny tell-all essay about being left by her lover, feminist writer Katha Pollitt fantasizes that after she learns to drive she mows him down at a crosswalk, where he just happens to be standing with his new wife and at least one other former lover. Pollitt imagines she will be sent to prison for decades, where she will reorganize the library and become a lesbian. Her story will be made into a movie.

Well, it has been made into a movie, and that’s not the story it tells.

First published in the New Yorker in 2002, the essay is a clear-eyed account of a middle-aged woman finally taking charge of her life, symbolized by her learning to drive. In the process, she skewers the unnamed lover with the literary leftist version of revenge porn. Pollitt is not afraid to expose her own insecurities even as she verbally flays the philandering lover.

The essay caused a stir when it came out, because women like Pollitt, that is to say, strong feminists, aren’t supposed to slash their wrists over men, even if metaphorically. She was excoriated for being too personal, but the essay struck a chord among many and eventually became the title of a collection of perceptive and poignant essays about her childhood, a stint as a proofreader of porn, her obsessive internet stalking of the ex-lover, being a mother, aging, death, and feminism. And even though my own life doesn’t parallel Pollitt’s, I can relate. We are children of the fifties who came to our feminism in the sixties. We have tried to pass on feminist ideals to our daughters. I still won’t drive in New York City. And, we both look at a man’s political portfolio before gazing into his eyes.

Like Pollitt, I, too, stayed with someone long past the due date because of his politics. And, like her alter ego in the film (literary critic Wendy Shields, played by Patricia Clarkson) I, too, was once dumped by a man during a meal in a restaurant. Unlike Wendy, however, I didn’t follow him onto the street screaming that he was a coward for choosing a public place. This opening scene tells us that Wendy is a woman who speaks her mind. Conveniently, the cab into which she pursues her fleeing husband is driven by Darwan Singh Tur (Ben Kingsley), who also has a day job as a driving instructor. When Darwan returns a manuscript she has left in the cab, she asks for his card. Her daughter is dropping out of school to work on a farm in Vermont, and if Wendy is to visit she will need to learn to drive.

What was once the story of a passionate feminist intellectual who refused to abandon a life of the mind in order to give blow jobs to her lover every morning has morphed into an “odd couple” comedy that its creators hope will appeal to a wide audience.

Director Isabel Coixet worked with Clarkson and Kingsley on Elegy, an adaptation of a Philip Roth novel, in which Kingsley plays the kind of guy Central Casting should have sent to portray Pollitt’s real-life lover. However, Coixet told an interviewer, she “realized all my films are full of tragedies and darkness, and I wanted very badly to make a film that showed some kind of hope and lightness.” But could such a film capture the subtleties of Pollitt’s essay?

The title essay and those that make up the book are about a subset of heterosexual women of a certain age who, while not pioneers of feminism, rode the Second Wave into adulthood and have spent their lives navigating the shoals of leftist politics, sexism, love, parenthood, and work. These are women who came relatively late to motherhood, after they had made career choices, women who are fully aware of the ways that they are objectified but who still worry about those extra pounds that cling to their hips. They are women who can remember a time when people “believed in some big triumphant idea like science or reason or socialism or art, or even a small, cozy hope like everyone having a place to live and nobody having to eat cat food.” And, in the most poignant essay, they are women who live with men who (statistically) will die before they do: “No more staying up listening to each other’s old records, no more reading Don Quixote to each other in bed, no more sex—strange to think that there will be an actual, specific last time for that.”

OK. I get it. A feature film has to have wider appeal.

In the essay, the driving instructor is a Filipino man named Ben who gives sage advice about driving and, hence, about life (“Observation, Kahta, observation! This is your weakness.” Yes, Pollitt thinks, “I did not realize that my mother was a secret drinker. I did not realize that the man I lived with, my soul mate, made for me in Marxist heaven, was a dedicated philanderer . . .”). In the film, the instructor is a Sikh with a backstory of religious persecution in India and a long stint in prison that explains why such a paragon of virtue is unmarried. Ben and Darwan represent the anti-jerk.

According to Coixet, the film tells “a great story about human connections surpassing race, age, time and religion.” This, of course, is part of the American Dream, which Coixet, despite being Spanish, is happy to propagate. She also admits that the story grabbed her because she’d just been left by the father of her child and she, too, does not know how to drive.

The original book jacket showed a long road heading off into daybreak. The movie poster shows a smiling, airbrushed Clarkson in the foreground, coquettishly holding a half-eaten Popsicle, while in the background a turbaned, airbrushed Kingsley looks at her in a way that made a young Indian friend exclaim, “Do they get involved with each other?” There is no car or road in sight.

“How stereotypical that they made the driver a Sikh!” snorted my friend. “Ben Kingsley couldn’t have played a Filipino,” I countered, as she gave me a withering look. “He can play any ethnic role he wants,” she said. “They must have made the character a Sikh because of the stereotype of Indians being so spiritual.”

I hadn’t seen the movie yet, but she was right. At every moment when Darwan does the honorable thing or offers sage advice and Wendy expresses amazement, he attributes his actions to his religion. The director says that creating Darwan’s character presented an opportunity to learn more about Sikhs, who are often confused by many in this country with Muslims and have faced discrimination and violence because of this misperception. Seriously though, how many people who can’t tell the difference between Muslims and Sikhs will watch this movie?

In the essay, all the action takes place either in the car or in Pollitt’s memory, as she ruminates about her past (her mother never learned to drive, either), the execrable ex-boyfriend’s philandering, and her own bemusement about why she has so far declined to learn to drive. This refusal, of course, is incomprehensible to the rest of the country, where driving may be third only to breathing and gun ownership as an inalienable right.

Readers most likely to relate to the essay are, perhaps, those for whom politics comes second to breathing. Here, the only overt politics comes when Wendy’s sister sets her up with an eligible banker and Wendy asks in horror whether he’s a Republican. She goes to bed with him, the question unanswered. The fact that she looks at her watch during the interminable tantric sex that ensues tells me the script was written by a woman (Sarah Kernochan).

Despite the brief sexual interlude, which may or may not have also been a satirical look at Western fascination with Eastern practices, Wendy remains focused on learning to drive. And unlike Thelma and Louise, she’s not going off a cliff.

Like myriad precursors, the film focuses on putting your life together after a relationship ends, not on what kept you frozen in place for so long. These days, the largest group of spouses fleeing the nest is middle-aged women, but Wendy never got the memo. She is the main financial support of the family (ex-husband Ted asks for 25 percent of her income in alimony), and there is nothing except her sexual attraction to him and, perhaps, some love of literature that seems to have kept them together. Except for a good body, Ted (Jake Weber) has nothing going for him. “He couldn’t even get tenure after twenty years,” sniffs Wendy. We never hear the ideas that seduced Pollitt or the words that are supposedly important to Wendy. Pollitt’s essay made it clear that she was attracted to “G” because he combined good sex with a brilliant mind and that, at least for a while, he was drawn to her for the same reason.

If Wendy has a life of the mind, we do not see it, even though Ted accuses her of having spent too much time at her work and not enough with him. As soon as he leaves, though, she is too heartsick to go into the office of what appears to be a New Yorker-type magazine. When Ted comes to pick up his books, the only one they reminisce about is The Joy of Sex, which leads to a cringe-inducing scene in which she attempts to recapture some of that joy while Ted recoils in embarrassment. When she does try to think about what went wrong after two decades, we only hear her blaming herself. This is a literary critic, not a feminist, presumably because that is an identity with wider appeal. But at such moments, the contrast between the film character and the real-life woman behind it could not be more stark.

The person we do hear from is Darwan, whose story slowly unfolds in parallel to Wendy’s. The driving instructor may have been cast as a Sikh because of the spiritual stereotype, but he also fits another trope, that of the educated immigrant (he’s got a PhD) relegated to a more menial occupation than in his home country. He, too, is stuck. Having lost several members of his immediate family to political terror (most likely the pogroms against Sikhs in India in 1984) and been granted political asylum and citizenship, he has buried himself in work. 

We see Wendy alone in her spacious Upper West Side brownstone as Darwan returns to the crowded basement apartment in Queens that he shares with several undocumented compatriots, including his nephew. The contrast between her clueless white privilege and his outsider status is driven home in scenes where some white adolescents taunt him by yelling, “Osama, I thought we killed you,” and another in which she causes an accident and the police start hassling Darwan. An indignant Wendy screams at the black officer, “I have two words for you: racial profiling!” Earlier, the viewer has seen Darwan lose his housemates during an immigration raid. As a citizen, he is safe from deportation, but is harassed daily.

While Wendy’s sister urges her to move on, fixing her up with men such as the aforementioned banker, Darwan’s sister sends photos of potential marriage partners. Despite misgivings, he finally agrees to an arranged marriage with a woman named Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury) from a neighboring village. Jasleen’s unmarried state is explained by her betrothed having been murdered in the same wave of terror that sent Darwan to prison. The fear in her eyes when he greets her in the airport and during the wedding ceremony scant hours later does not abate. Her English is limited, but Darwan, who has been warm and understanding with Wendy, refuses to welcome his fiancée in their native tongue. He presents her with a book of poetry by Wordsworth (suggested by Wendy, who had received such a gift from Ted). He insists that Jasleen read to him, and when she stumbles over the words, he asks whether she can even read English. She tells him that her brother took her out of school at age fourteen.

He criticizes her cooking, having lost his taste for so much ghee. She is too scared to leave the house, and he is never home because of the two jobs. She is no doormat, though, realizing long before he does that he is attracted to Wendy.

However, the film, as its website declares, is a “feel-good, coming of (middle) age comedy about a mismatched pair who help each other overcome life’s road blocks.” Even though she barely gets fifteen minutes in the film, Jasleen, too, overcomes some roadblocks. Having run out of sanitary pads, she ventures out to a store, where she meets a compatriot who soon introduces her to the neighborhood’s other immigrant women. The women gather at her house to catechize her to this new world. When Darwan arrives home to this scene, he rejects her offer to run into the kitchen and urges her to enjoy time with her new friends. Soon, Jasleen is taking English classes. 

So much for Jasleen’s story arc, which would have made a fascinating movie in its own right. Could Wendy and Jasleen have bridged their cultural differences? Will Jasleen and Darwan? Unfortunately, we see too little of them interacting. No tantric sex for them. No poetry. No driving lessons.

It won’t be giving away the ending to say that we know from the many times we’ve seen this story play out that Wendy will either discover romance with someone better looking and more sensitive than Ted or face the future alone and unafraid. Or both.

There are so few movies made by women about women that it seems petty to criticize this one for not moving beyond fantasy and stereotypes. In the real world, when men leave women or vice versa, it is women who almost always suffer a major loss of income. In cinema, such women are thin, good-looking, and have beautiful homes that they do not lose after the divorce. In a country where the median salary for women ages fifty-five to sixty-five is $41,000, these fictional ex-wives have jobs that allow them to maintain their upper middle-class standard of living. Wendy may have to sell the brownstone, but instead of downsizing to Queens, she relocates to a spacious Upper West Side apartment. The biggest fantasy, though, is that she and Darwan always find parking in Manhattan.

If the movie had focused on the ideas that drew Pollitt to her lover, we would be living in another country (France?). If the driving instructor hadn’t had a PhD, we might have had to confront class issues as well as race. Again, we’d be living in another country (the United Kingdom?). Instead, we’re living in the United States, where we can ignore both.

At the screening I attended, the audience was silent at the end. I muttered to the other person in my row, “It’s not like the book.” She gave me a “What did you expect?” look and said, “It’s enjoyable.” That it is. Clarkson, Kingsley, and Choudhury are certainly worth the price of the ticket. The sight of Weber’s bare behind isn’t bad, either.

But, if you like your comédie humaine with both wit and vérité, read the book.

Maxine Phillips is editor of Democratic Left and former executive editor of Dissent.

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