Posted on Starpulse.
The Sundance Film Festival always has its award-winning darlings each year, and this year it was the coming-of-age film “An Education.” It won the World Cinema Audience Award for Drama at Sundance, and it is quickly proving to be a critic darling as the reviews pour in.
The movie, based on a memoir by journalist Lynn Barber, was written by another critical darling Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity,” “About A Boy“). The end result is a smart and well paced story about a restless brilliant young girl and her education in the ways life can be cruel.
Jenny (Casey Mulligan) is the top of her class at her elegant private school in England, and her aspirations are to go to Oxford and make something of her life. She’s loved by her parents, Jack (Alfred Molina) and Marjorie (Cara Seymour), and her teacher (Olivia Wlliams) and Headmistress (Emma Thompson). Everyone has high hopes for Jenny, and as she rounds on her 17th birthday, her perfect little life is shaken up by the arrival of David (Peter Sarsgaard). More than a decade her senior, he woos the innocent Jenny with charm, panache, and with promise of excitement. He manages to win over both of her parents with his easy manner and charisma, lying to them through his teeth as he whisks her away for private weekends. Jenny goes along with it, so enamored with his street-smart way of living and the elegance of his two best friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike).
As Jenny debates what is more useful to her – a scholarly education or a real-life one – the audience can already foresee where this romance story is headed. Indeed, we’re clued in long before she is that there’s only black clouds on the horizon, but there’s no way to warn her. There are hints about David’s unsuitability for her, such as his suspicious business aspirations, and Danny’s surprising overprotective nature of Jenny. It’s as if he’s trying to protect her from David, of all people. There’s a lesson Jenny has to learn and some choices she must make for herself, but it’s easy to see how a smart young girl could get dragged into something so potentially disastrous. David and his friends are as seductive to the audience as they are to us, and the whirlwind world of fun and class and music is appealing in a broad sense.
This movie is also set in 1961 so it’s just before the Beatle mania and free love era kicked in. Jenny is struggling with a sense of longing for a life bigger than the one she leads. In some ways she feels trapped by her intelligence and her options as an educated female, seeing the only end result to be a teacher herself or something less than what she dreams of. Would a life education be more substantial in the long run for a savvy woman? Probably not, but it’s something Jenny has to decide for herself. The performance of Carey Mulligan has quickly earned her the title of an up-and-coming young actress who could make it far, and this is entirely possible. Her role as Jenny is believable, relatable, and vulnerable. Everyone sparkles in their own characters, especially Molina as the overbearing father and Sarsgaard as the seductive older man.
The only downfall of “An Education” is that it slightly loses steam toward the end, turning it into a quick fix rather than really giving Jenny – and the viewers – a chance to mull over the problems. It builds up nicely but once the crux is hit, the end is too quick, too easy, and not as rewarding as the rest of the film. In some ways it would be more interesting to have more time as Jenny mourns and truly considers her actions. This is a small problem in an otherwise excellent film, however. It is beautifully shot, acted, and manages to make an old story still relevant. We’ve seen this kind of coming-of-age story before, but it still gets straight to the heart, and that’s what matters. “An Education” is entertaining, believable, and moving. Even if you feel at times that you’ve seen this all before, it’s worth the journey. It is in theaters on October 9 in limited theaters and rated PG-13.