Sir Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson in "Learning to Drive."

(WOMENSENEWS)– "Learning to Drive," opening Aug. 21, is a metaphor for learning to live in filmmaker Isabel Coixet‘s absolutely delightful and smart take on how a modern woman survives her mid-life crisis. Wendy (Patricia Clarkson) is a successful New York City book editor who suddenly needs to become more self-reliant when her husband leaves her for a younger woman. She decides to take driving lessons so she can visit her daughter (Grace Gummer) in the country. Her instructor turns out to be Darwan (Sir Ben Kingsley), a devout Sikh who’s on political asylum in the United States and is on the brink of entering an arranged marriage with a bride selected by his sister in India. The driving lessons prove to be psychotherapeutic, as student and teacher form a bond of friendship that’s fueled by their differing cultural precepts and perceptions. Performances by Clarkson and Kingsley are profoundly moving and, at times, absolutely hilarious. Based on Katha Pollitt’s New Yorker article, Sarah Kernochan’s script is insightful and utterly truthful. Co-editor Thelma Schoonmaker paces the story perfectly.

"Grandma," the second must-see, puts Lily Tomlin in the driver’s seat on a road trip that leads to a mother-daughter reconciliation. Tomlin plays Elle, an elder who’s shunned worldly interaction to the extent that she’s created wind chimes from her shredded credit cards. Enter her estranged teenage granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner), who needs money for an abortion, but can’t ask her reactionary mother (Marcia Gay Harden) for help. Writer-director Paul Weitz has crafted a beautifully equipped women’s playground, populated by complex female characters brilliantly brought to life by a superb ensemble of actresses. Aside from the three leads, let’s add Judy Greer, Laverne Cox and Elizabeth Pena in supporting roles. The engaging plot is all about getting the money, but the dialogue concerns doing the right thing and recognizing the bond of love between mothers and daughters, even after it has been subjected to a long detour. I love this film, and you will, too.

"After Words," must-see No. 3, brings you Marcia Gay Harden (yes, starring in two superb same-day openers) as a dowdy, fearful, socially isolated librarian whose life is shattered when budget cuts terminate her job. Bereft and desperate for one meaningful experience beyond the library, she books a trip to Costa Rica – clearly intending to never come back. By the end of the film, the intention remains the same, but the reasons for it have entirely changed. Watching Harden’s character transformation in this film is thrilling. If you’re looking for inspiration, this film might just do the trick. You’ve just gotta see it — and believe.

More Aug. 21 Openers

"Slow Learners" is a quirky and entirely enjoyable indie-in-style-and-spirit relationship romcom. Best friends and co-workers Anne (Megan Neuringer) and Jeff (Adam Pally) consistently have bad-to-no luck with romantic relationships. So, they decide to dedicate one summer to helping each other develop more satisfying and satisfactory social skills. That’s the set up. You must see the film to find out how it plays out – often in deadpan — in this fine and funny, low-budget but watch-worthy first feature from the superb documentary filmmaking team of Don Argott and Sheena Joyce,

"Hitman: Agent 47" is a futuristic action thriller about conflict among humans enhanced by DNA engineering. They’re smarter, stronger, faster, bullet proof and in competition for world dominance. In this mostly male milieu, Katja (Hannah Ware), the heroine, is trying to find her missing father and research her ancestral roots. She discovers she’s got powers of her own and is one of them. The action in this slick and stylish – and violent — film is nonstop, as Katja stands her ground, giving as good as she gets, and more.

"The Curse of Downers Grove," one of several femme-centric horror flicks opening this week, is set in a high school where a senior dies every year during the week before graduation. Are the untimely deaths coincidental, or are the slaughtered teens the victims of a sinister curse? Lead characters Chrissie (Bella Heathcote), the cynic, and superstitious Tracy (Penelope Mitchell) – who feels she might be the next to die – represent adverse feminine points of view on the prevailing teen angst. This is a predictable, plot heavy scarer that may have strong teen appeal. Just make sure whether you want yours to see it or not.

"In the Pines" turns an intentionally technology-free backwoods camping trip into a struggle for survival. As the plot’s point of departure, BJ (Brittney Ellis) invites a group of her friends to join her on a back-to-nature retreat far from cell phones and texting and techno connectivity. The happy campers soon suffer a suspicious life-threatening accident that leaves them stranded, bringing out their worst behavior and causing their confidence in themselves and each other to cave. For full fright effect, remember to turn off your cell while watching the flick.

Opened Aug. 19

"House on Rodeo Gulch," which opened Aug. 19, is a women-fight-back scenario in which a mother (Chanel Ryan) and daughter (Megan Jay Simrell) defend their possession of a newly acquired residence, an isolated property tucked away in the Santa Cruz, Calif., redwoods. The house has a mysterious history involving the deaths and disappearances of its residents. A sinister minister and his cohort also have strange ties to the property – and untoward plans for its occupants. The film’s scare factor survives its predictable religion-gone-wrong plot.

Stay tuned for more August openers next week.

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