Learning to Drive – a road movie with a difference

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Learning to Drive (Written and directed by US film-maker Roderick E. Stevens) gives actor Connor Long (Michael) ample room for his skill at comedic timing. Also starring Kevin Coubal (as brother Red), and Caleb Dykstra (as Young Michael), the short film sets a precedent in its’ representation of people with Downs Syndrome, according to DAO’s film critic Alison Wilde

A photo of a young actor with Down's Syndrome behind the wheel of a car

Connor Long behind the wheel as Michael in Roderick E. Stevens ‘Learning to Drive’

Learning to Drive is not, on the face of it, about learning to drive. At first it appears to be, as Michael (Connor Long) has shown an obvious desire to drive since he was a toddler, as the opening ‘home cinema’ shots show us. But he seems to be thwarted by people assuming that, as a twenty-year old man with Down Syndrome, he is incompetent to do so.

The story all takes place within a road trip with his brother, Red, who is driving them to the Grand Canyon in a dilapidated jeep, to spread their late mother’s ashes. Amongst other disruptions to their journey, Red’s failure to maintain the vehicle results in incidents along the way, including sudden noises which they fear to be gunshot.

Problems with the vehicle also result in Red being pulled over by a policewoman (Nicole Carter Lyde); she resists arresting him, presumably due to Michael’s charm and her respect for the ashes, which reside in a coffee jar on the back seat, while she simultaneously provides Michael with the information he has been searching for to attain greater independence, and to strengthen his resistance to Red’s authority.

The film skilfully avoids old stereotypes of people with Down Syndrome, refusing a one-dimensional portrait of Michael, without falling into the trap of defining him as a new counter-stereotype, something we often see in such efforts to shape new representations; the Malteser advertisements (discussed in Penny Pepper’s article in the Guardian (2016) are an example of this.

Michael runs the gamut of emotions we might expect from any human being and, although we see him gently but firmly claiming his needs and rights for independence, this does not circumscribe his personality; Michael is also depicted feeling vulnerable, frightened and apologetic. Given that his co-protagonist is his brother, this sibling relationship was of particular interest to me as someone who grew up with a sister with learning difficulties.

A photo of a young actor with Down's Syndrome pictured inside a car witha smile on his face

Michael considers a drivers license. Connor Long stars in Roderick E. Stevens ‘Learning to Drive’

This theme of sibling relationships, expectations and needs is seldom explored in a well-balanced way, especially in cinema. If I am being picky, I would probably say that Red’s character is under-developed in comparison to Michael’s, though it brings comedy to the story.

Red is often depicted as dismissive of Michael’s needs, over-protective at times, and a less honest and self-reflective person overall, but this favouring of Michael’s story above Red’s is deliberate, and is clearly acknowledged on the film’s website. This was not surprising to me as I knew that the director has a brother, Andy, with learning difficulties, who had planned to make this film for fifteen years. Therefore, it is probable and understandable that he prioritised Andy’s point of view based on such experiences – indeed this is something I sought to do when I wrote a chapter about my relationship with my sister, Sarah, in 2011. Roderick E. Stevens, however, is much more generous than I was, as I sought mainly to understand my side of the relationship.

Photo of two actors with angry experesions, sitting in the front seat of a car

The brothers argue in the car. Connor Long stars in Roderick E. Stevens ‘Learning to Drive’

From a narrative point of view, the portrayal of Red as the more flawed of the two brothers is also feasible; Red’s actions may well be understood as part of the aftermath of their mother’s recent death, and his clumsy struggles to understand any responsibilities he feels he has towards Michael. It might also be argued that the reversal of usual dynamics of ‘carer’/’cared for’, rational/foolish, knowledgeable/’stupid’ and so on need to be made more explicit to make the message about competency and non-disabled assumptions clear, especially within the film industry.

The landscape of their journey is portrayed well in the outdoor shots of the film, but this is less true for the shooting inside the car, where the use of green screen is a little distracting to the action. Although music is used sparingly, it is complementary to the cowboy themes and symbols within the film, seen in the desolate Western US landscape, to Red’s cowboy hat (interestingly, worn by Michael when he finally manages to get control of the wheel), Red’s toothpick-chewing attempt to appear ‘badass’ right through to Red’s intention to embrace new frontiers. Some of the music (by Roderick E. Junior) reminded me a little of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s film soundtracks (which I love). The song playing whilst Michael waited, a little fearfully, in the motel room for his brother complemented this well (all extra diegetic).

The film is explicit in its desire to promote the independence of people with Down Syndrome. If we are in any doubt about Michael’s competencies as a driver these are put right, and we are shown Michael dealing adeptly with escaped convicts, passing trains, and more – whilst he is driving.

We suspect he has a waited for a long time, observing others carefully, something that is suggested in his quiet disposition at the beginning of the film. Whilst the successful triumph over considerable obstacles and treacherous situations can be seen as a hallmark of many films featuring learning disability and or/autism, from early cinema to Forrest Gump and Dumb and Dumber, there is a big difference here. Michael’s actions are the result of his agency, directly stemming from his reflections on his own situation, desires and needs, not from happy accidents or some savant-like mystique.

However, the title ’Learning to Drive’ could be applied equally to both Michael and Red, who are both trying to navigate new lives without their mother, and indeed we find Michael comfortably taking on a semi-parental approach to his brother’s needs and fears towards the end.

Overall, this is a rare, and somewhat relational, depiction of disability which considers both sides of a story thoughtfully, whilst firmly communicating the banality of everyday disablement stemming from the ‘good intentions’ which are often imposed on those with Down Syndrome.

Once again, I find myself praising Connor Long’s acting abilities (see my review of Solondz’s Weiner Dog), playing off well with Kevin Coubals’ performance as his brother, with convincing and natural forms of (often interrupting) dialogue between them. I look forward to seeing more of Connor Long’s acting and Roderick E Stevens’ films in the future.

For more information about Learning to Drive, go to www.learningtodrive-movie.com