It's a sign of the times that the May-December relationship at the center of An Education is unique. Why unique? Because May is the woman and December is the man. How romantically retro and almost refreshing in this age of cougarism. Of course, we have to flash back to 1961 in a London suburb to find this bit of rom-dram history. But it's a mostly delightful walk down memory lane. 

Our May is Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a 16-year-old student at an all-girls prep school. She's bright and bored under the watchful eye of her overprotective and driven dad. As she listens to smuggled jazz records in her bedroom, Jenny is just itching to get on with her life—mirroring the culture around her just recovering from the depression of war and teetering on the brink of the decadent '60s.

December is David (Peter Sarsgaard), the 30something man who rescues Jenny and her cello from a rainy walk home after orchestra practice. Though Jenny is reluctant to get into a car with a complete stranger, David slowly charms her into the dry sanctuary of his roadster's passenger seat.

Carey Mulligan as Jenny

Carey Mulligan as Jenny

Over the following weeks, he slowly charms his way into Jenny's heart as well. With bouquets of flowers, expensive meals in smoky clubs, and trips to the opera, David provides that larger life, that something more Jenny has been craving. Along the way, David always has his handsome business partner, Danny (Dominic Cooper), and Danny's beautiful but vacuous girlfriend, Helen (Rosamund Pike), in tow—providing not just a relationship, but a community for Jenny to belong to. And Helen is more than happy to make over Jenny from a generic schoolgirl into an Audrey-Hepburn-esque knockout. It's as if Helen has a new pet.

While wooing Jenny is relatively easy, it's charming her by-the-book dad (Alfred Molina) and slightly-less-conservative mom that's the real challenge for David. But he takes this challenge in stride, even convinces the couple to let him take their daughter to Paris for her 17th birthday. He's that good. Which should be a warning to Jenny. As should the dubious way he and Danny bankroll their luxe life. But she's too smitten with this older man and the lifestyle to which he's introduced her to really notice—or care.

Peter Sarsgaard as David

Peter Sarsgaard as David

In fact, Jenny's so smitten that she begins to rethink the Oxford education she's been working toward for years. What use is an expensive education if she'll soon marry off and be at home anyway, she asks her bewitched parents, her disappointed teacher, and her strict headmistress. What is the point of an education? And which education does she want and value most? These are the questions she grapples with throughout the rest of the film.

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An Education is based on a memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber. Novelist Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy) took her 10-12 page story, which originally appeared in a literary magazine, and crafted the screenplay. While the story flows well and the dialogue is sharp, it's the highly stylized clothes and hair and sets that are the true centerpiece here. (Note to fans of Mad Men: Don't miss this movie version of the sophisticated style and relational mayhem of the 1960s, the kind you've come to know and love each Sunday night.)

The acting is pretty much as beautiful as the clothes. Mulligan is simply perfect as Jenny. It's almost eerie how this 22-year-old actress can pull off the emotional angst and relational naiveté of a 16-year-old. And how she can portray that 16-year-old looking like both a run-of-the-mill schoolgirl and a sophisticated socialite.

Alfred Molina as Jack

Alfred Molina as Jack

Sarsgaard is devilishly charming as David. His character is a careful blend of deception and joie de vivre. In lesser hands, he could have come across as either a monster or a pervert. It's a testament to Sarsgaard and a huge benefit to the film that he doesn't.

Molina also stands out as Jenny's dad, Jack. Though he's almost stereotypically driven and overbearing (Molina saves him from being a caricature), it just makes it all the more delightful to watch him melt at David's charm. And then grieve for his daughter's future.

The role of the parents in Jenny's life decisions makes for an interesting angle. We watch Jenny deceive, reason with, buck, seek advice from, and scold the couple—who at turns are much wiser and much more foolish than their daughter. Their culpability in the decisions Jenny does and doesn't make is a pretty fresh aspect to a familiar story—and is astonishingly relevant today.

Rosamund Pike as Helen, Dominic Cooper as Danny

Rosamund Pike as Helen, Dominic Cooper as Danny

While this angle is given just the right touch, the impact of Jenny's choices isn't mined nearly enough. Sadly, the ending falls a bit flat. I don't want to give too much away here, but we certainly want to see how the relationship between Jenny and David (and the related decisions) impact Jenny's future—and we don't really get that. I'm not entirely sure she learned anything she didn't already know.

And while the title can of course apply to the decision between book education versus life education, I don't think it's asking too much to think that Jenny should be learning something more from this whole experience besides how to do her hair like Audrey Hepburn or that Paris is a really cool place to visit with your dreamy, older boyfriend. Even one or two sentences at the end offering perspective or synthesis of the experience would have been enough. But it's not there, making this film a slightly incomplete, though mostly rewarding, education.

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Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. What is Jenny's attraction to David? What is David's attraction to Jenny?

  2. What conditions make Jenny especially susceptible to this type of unorthodox relationship?

  3. Trace Jenny's journey from straight-A student, to school dropout who's sleeping with her much older and law-breaking boyfriend. What compromises and concessions does she make along the way? How does David ease and even manipulate Jenny into this transformation?

  4. How culpable are Jenny's parents in this overall wooing and deceiving? How much are they victims themselves and how much are they accomplices?

  5. How are the choices and temptations young women face today (especially in regards to education and relationships) similar and how are they different from the ones Jenny faces?

  6. What do you think is the education Jenny receives?


The Family Corner

For parents to consider

An Education is rated PG-13 for thematic material involving sexual content. And also for smoking, which many of the characters (including teenaged Jenny) do pretty constantly. While there's no full-on nudity, we do see the back of Jenny as she's showing David her breasts. She also loses her virginity to him on her 17th birthday (and SPOILER ALERT: he winds up being married all along). Jenny manages all this by lying repeatedly to her parents about where she is. Jenny also lies and talks back to her teachers and other school authorities. David and Danny steal things to afford their extravagant lifestyle. There's an intriguing conflict between education and this extravagant party lifestyle—and while it's not mined as richly as it could have been, it could provide great conversation fodder with your mature teens.  

An Education
Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Average Rating
 
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Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for mature thematic material involving sexual content, and for smoking)
Genre
Directed By
Lone Scherfig
Run Time
1 hour 40 minutes
Cast
Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Olivia Williams
Theatre Release
October 08, 2009 by Sony Pictures Classics
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