First espoused by French filmmakers and critics in the 1950s, the auteur theory suggests that the director is the primary artist behind a film. This idea may seem obvious now but was revolutionary for its time, arriving near the end of an era in which Hollywood’s studio-centered model for film production had brought decades of creative success. Today, no one questions the primacy of directors or the crucial contributions made by screenwriters, cinematographers and many others who leave their creative mark on a movie. But are there films for which actors — the sometimes-undervalued artists who actually appear on screen — should be acknowledged as the dominant creative force?
Learning to Drive is based on a personal essay by noted feminist author Katha Pollitt that was first published by The New Yorker in 2002. It offers a snapshot of the author’s life shortly after her longtime lover left her for a much younger woman. The film went through a 9-year development process as producer Dana Friedman organized the creative team for a narrative film based on an essay she held dear. Sarah Kernochan (Impromptu) wrote the screenplay and award-winning Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet (Elegy) directed the film. But the best reason to see the mostly bland and underpowered Learning to Drive is the artistry of its two lead actors, New Orleans native Patricia Clarkson (The Station Agent) and Ben Kingsley (Gandhi).
The film’s opening scene introduces us to Manhattan book critic Wendy (Clarkson) and her husband Ted (Jake Weber) as they pile into a cab driven by Darwan (Kingsley). Ted has just announced at dinner that he’s leaving Wendy after 21 years of marriage. Wendy’s rage and hysteria causes her to leave a manuscript in the cab, which comes in handy later: Darwan also works as a driving instructor and Wendy is going to have to learn this basic skill to visit her daughter Tasha (Grace Gummer, Frances Ha) in Vermont. The story quickly becomes one of an evolving friendship between Wendy and Darwan, a Sikh from India and a political refugee who is about to enter into an arranged marriage.
The many conversations between Wendy and Darwan inside a driving-school car anchor the film as each learns from the other’s unique and culturally based perspective on love and marriage. Both Clarkson and Kingsley bring an unmistakable humanity to characters that might have dissolved into stereotypes. There is humor of the broad and non-threatening variety, but the film is far more character study than comedy.
Apart from the lead performances, Learning to Drive is at its best when providing true-to-life glimpses of the Sikh community in Queens — as well as scenes in which Darwan stoically suffers through racist insults in the streets — in part because it reminds us how infrequently cultures like this are depicted on film in the U.S. The screenplay breaks down when it shames Wendy through her pathetic early efforts to win back her husband at any cost. This material also betrays the ultimately defiant spirit of Pollitt’s essay, which perhaps too-easily dismisses the author’s former lover as a “psychopath.”
Learning to Drive finds its voice by examining the dramatic upheavals that often occur late in life when we least expect them. It’s about finding new perspectives when the culture may be telling you you’re too old to change. Ironically, given the country’s currently aging population, this may be a subject with a very bright future.
Learning to Drive opens today, Sept. 11, at the Elmwood Palace and Canal Place theaters.