Directed by Lone ScherfigStarring Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina and Olivia WilliamsRated PG-13*7.5*Goes well with: High Fidelity, Notes on a Scandal, Guinevere
Nick Hornby is the guru for a certain group of men suffering from arrested development and an addiction to pop culture. His two novels, High Fidelity and About a Boy, perfectly captured the Peter Pan syndrome guys like that—guys like me, that is—deal with. I'm not talking about the movie versions of those books, one of which was OK. I'm talking about the books, which are all about men who are getting slightly older and are therefore forced, metaphorically kicking and screaming, into adulthood. So it's ironic, then, that he's the screenwriter of An Education, a film all about a girl who cannot wait to grow up.
Based on the memoir from journalist Lynn Barber, An Education is about Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a bright, sunshiney 15-year-old who lives in suburban London during the transitional period of 1961. She's a great student, does all kinds of extracurricular activities and is bound and determined to attend Oxford and study literature in the hopes of outgrowing her family and her working-class neighborhood. Her parents, Jack (Alfred Molina) and Marjorie (Cara Seymour), want exactly the same thing, and they constantly push her to work, rather than socialize. But everything changes when she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a good-looking 30-something who gives her and her cello a ride home in his sports car when he happens upon them during a rainstorm.
She's taken with David, so when they run into each other a few weeks later, she's both flattered and thrilled that he asks her out. Is that creepy? Sure, it's creepy. But he's smooth as silk, offering up a classical-music concert she'd never get to go to otherwise. It's not clear, initially, whether he's actually interested in her (he is) or whether he just wants to expose her to the finer things in life (he does). But he manages to charm the pants off her parents, figuratively, and before long, off of her, too, literally. He does this by giving Jenny all the sophisticated things she really wants: art auctions, weekends in Paris, afternoons at the track. She's getting to be a grownup, even if David's behavior seems shady, and even if there's something seriously messed up about a dude like him falling for a teenager.
Kids aren't meant to grow up so fast. Jenny is no longer interested in school, because she now looks at her English teacher (Olivia Williams) and the principal (a nicely snooty Emma Thompson) as women whose lives are wretchedly dull. In David she has found a short cut to adulthood, and the film works not just because it's well-acted (it is) or extravagantly directed (it isn't), but because the terrible choices Jenny's making about her life and her future make perfect sense, especially when seen through the eyes of a child.
The buzz on An Education is all about Carey Mulligan, and she's just delicious in the role, an intelligent girl with no experience at all, but a radiance that lights up the room when she smiles. Sarsgaard, always the charmer, does his thing, and even though he's not quite capable of convincing you that Jenny's parents would go along for the ride, you still buy him. He may be a man with secrets, but he doesn't play David like one, and the entire film is stronger for it. If anything, he is Hornby's socially maladjusted young man, epically failing in his attempts to be an adult.
But this isn't Sarsgaard's movie, and it isn't a movie about being an adult. It's a movie about wanting, desperately, to be an adult, without having any notion of what that actually entails. The terrible choices Jenny's making, coerced as she is by David, will, of course, have terrible consequences. Most intelligent, erudite young women don't learn that lesson until they're older, but that's the education in the film's title. Growing up is always tough, but it's even tougher when a young person's options are being co-opted by someone who should know better. Still, this is very adult subject matter, and it suggests that maybe, just maybe, Hornby himself has finally grown up.
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