Film review by: Witney Seibold
Lone Scherfig’s “An Education” is a sweet, intelligent film that knows the hearts and minds of young people better than they seem to know themselves. It also asks that frustrated question posed by particularly bright students since time immemorial: If being educated is only supposed to end in a good job and a stable marriage, why bother? Certainly one can get a good, high-paying job without all the book learning. And if you’re a girl in the early 1960s, and you are expected to be supported by your husband once you graduate, the purpose of an education seems even less clear. Why not bugger off to France, stay up late in salons and bars talking literature and art with helplessly admirable, erudite older people? Why not learn by experience? Why not choose to be sexually liberated?
Of course, there is always unforeseeable heartbreak down that alley. But more on that later.
“An Education” is one of the best films of the year, and it centers partly on the savvy screenplay by Nick Hornby, but mostly on the glittering performance by Carey Mulligan in the lead role of Jenny. Mostly when a character, especially a young girl, is called “smart” in a movie, it’s largely because they are needed to be “smart” as a plot function. In reality, those other girls are average ciphers for the audience. What Mulligan does is make us think that Jenny is actually smart, and is, in addition to being excited by the new things she experiences, burning with a=n intelligence just waiting for a moment to expose itself.
Jenny is poised to get into Oxford. She hates school, even though she does really well (despite slipping grades in Latin). The girls all talk like real youths and have open and frank conversations about sex and their future. No yearbook avatars are these. Jenny’s father (a great Alfred Molina) is a comic browbeater who insists she get good grades so she can get into a good college so she can get a good job as a teacher, so she can be rich, and her mother (Cara Seymour) seems to support her father.
Into Jenny’s life comes a handsome and charming older man named David (Peter Sarsgaard, giving a pretty good English accent). David offers her a ride home one day, and they immediately have a rapport. David begins offering to take Jenny on dates to the opera, to bars and clubs, and to introduce her to that vast and exciting world of adult nightlife that every teenager is desperate to break into. David is the exact right blend of nurturing and creepy. Does he want to help raise Jenny into a well-rounded adulthood, full of new experiences and sensual joys, or his he a predator who feeds on teenage girls. The film never categorically states one or the other, keeping us just the right amount of off-balance.
Eventually, Jenny finds herself torn between living the Bohemian lifestyle in France, and finishing her boring school. She appeals to her teacher (Olivia Williams) and her principal (Emma Thompson) for arguments as to why she needs to stay in school, and they can’t give much of an answer when put on the spot. Eventually, the true reason for an education comes to light.
This is one of the savvier films I’ve seen about growing up, and has a way with words that is difficult to find in most movies of this sort. I’m usually insulted by most teenagers in movies, because they offer up boys and girls that I cannot, and never could, relate to; they are often broad and bland archetypes. Occasionally, though, you’ll find a movie like “An Education,” or 2009’s “Adventureland” that actually listens to the way young people really speak and relate to one another. It’s so refreshing and brilliant when it happens. I cherish these films.