Coming-of-age films usually center on young men losing their virginity, and finding out the world is a rough and difficult place that forces them to discover who they really are in order to make their place in it. An Education is an excellent coming-of-age tale, and by having a young woman at its center it stands out from this heavily populated genre.
It's London in 1961, and intelligent, attractive, ambitious, 16-year-old Jenny (Carey Mulligan) studies hard hoping to earn a scholarship to Oxford. Pushed by her penny-pinching father, Jack (Alfred Molina), Jenny studies her Latin, but she's so eager to escape her current circumstances that she needs very little prodding. However, when she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a charming, sophisticated, Jewish thirtysomething, his worldliness attracts her. Soon she lets her studies slide, and goes on weekend trips with her new guy, his friend Danny (Dominic Cooper), and Danny's dim girlfriend, Helen (Rosamund Pike). As Jenny learns the shady ways in which David maintains the income that allows him to lead such a free-wheeling life, his justifications and rationalizations simply draw her deeper into him. Soon Jenny must decide between the future she planned, and the man she loves.
Working from a superb script by novelist Nick Hornby, director Lone Scherfig does a flawless job of putting us in pre-Beatles Britain, using costumes, music, and art direction to transport us to a time and a place where it's apparent that seismic social changes are just around the corner. She accomplishes this subtly, without ever taking our attention away from her superior cast, headed by Carey Mulligan. Although she's in her twenties, Mulligan is a more than passable teenager, especially one who is almost too smart for her own good. Jenny's sense of superiority -- her insistence that she knows everything -- could make her alienating, but Mulligan makes Jenny such a unique presence that you fall in love with her. Hornby gives Jenny such articulate and well-reasoned dialogue that you understand why she's making such horrible, life-altering choices; she's so persuasive you might not even believe they are bad choices. Mulligan communicates Jenny's self-assuredness and her excitement at discovering a world so much richer than her day-to-day existence with such realism that our fear for her becomes palpable.
As much as Mulligan dominates the movie, she's hardly the only actor who shines. Molina takes a role that could easily be a stereotype -- the overbearing dad -- and makes him specific enough to be a sympathetic individual rather than a cliché. Sarsgaard brings a natural likability, as well as his gift for unconventional line readings, to David, seducing us as well as Jenny even while warning sirens sound in our heads. As Helen, Rosamund Pike acts as Jenny's polar opposite -- a dumb girl surviving on nothing more than her looks and surface charm -- and if the saying is true that playing dumb requires great smarts, then Pike is one of the most intelligent actresses out there. And last, but far from least, Olivia Williams never hits a wrong note as Miss Stubbs, a sympathetic teacher. She's the only character who can simultaneously see how much Jenny stands to lose, and understand that her heartfelt attempts to get through to the stubborn teen are agonizing exercises in futility. It's Williams who delivers the most heart-breaking performance in the whole movie.
With a cast this uniformly strong, and a script so elegantly appealing, it's little wonder that An Education elicits such a warm feeling. It's full of people we like, and people we recognize -- people we want to see succeed, and people who surprise us even after we think we understand everything about them. It's a movie full of life.