An Education: It’s a learning experience

There are three things on which this film would like to educate you. You may or may not be interested in any or all of those things.

The title of this Oscar-nominated film (and for this movie, that descriptor really means something, as the theme of these year’s Academy Awards is “box office kings,” yet this smallish film directed by Lone Scherfig managed to make the cut) refers to “an education” received by a 16-year-old girl in the ways of the world, long before she was ready to receive it.

Jenny (played by Carey Mulligan) (based on real life British journalist Lynn Barber, who wrote a memoir about her experiences) is a schoolgirl in England in 1961. Due to her father’s firm guidance down a road that will hopefully land her a spot at Oxford, she has seen little beyond what she could read about in books… until she meets David (played by Peter Sarsgaard), an older man (who I’m guessing is supposed to be about 30). It’s at this point that her naivete is stripped away by someone who treats her, for the most part, as a grown up, and her real life education begins.

An Education itself, however, really tackles three types of educations, all of which have a good chance of resonating with viewers who were 16-year-old girls, especially those who spent a lot of time reading Victorian novels and wishing something interesting would happen to them. I would imagine that men who spent their teenage years dreaming of rock stardom and trading punk rock mix-tapes would be able to translate those characteristics to make them fit their own adolescences, but the two dudes I saw this movie with were utterly bored and completely unimpressed. I thought about that a lot later — why was I struck by this film and why weren’t they?

Education 1: Being a Teenage Girl

An Education portrays a girl coming into sexual awareness. Get over it, prudes and dads. Your teenage girls will hit this, most likely, and it’s totally normal. Not everyone is going to allow themselves to be seduced by an older guy, but there is a strange moment in our lives when we realize that, if we wanted, we could make those sorts of things happen. It’s heady and exciting and, if we’ve spent a lot of our time living in the pages of the books we read, makes us feel like Jane Eyre (before we remember the book’s ending). For a little while, it feels like you can bring the men of the world to their knees, not to mention reduce boys your own age to trembling heaps of insecurity. You know the tools are there, but you haven’t quite mastered how to use them, much less the knowledge of where and when. Jenny’s friends transform this immature knowledge into giggling and making faces — sneaking cigarettes and daydreaming about French perfume. Until David, Jenny had been right along with them. Suddenly, she’s thrust into the world of jazz clubs and cocktails, and the breathless schoolgirl existence seems woefully beneath her. The world sees her as the sophisticated adult she comes to believe she is, even though at every turn her naivete sticks out like the movie was filmed in 3D.

Education 2: Being a Parent

Back to you, dads: the difference between Jenny and your daughter (jeez, hopefully) is bad parenting. Let this be your education. At first, Jenny’s parents are a hard sell, and David and Jenny cover some of the more difficult information with easier-to-swallow lies that allow her to carry on this affair directly under their noses. When they catch on, which appears to be a gradual process, they’re so charmed by the smooth talk of a clearly practiced con man, that they convince themselves David is good for Jenny. After all, what use is college for a woman in 1961? David is sharp, handsome, and he appears to have all the right things that mark a person as successful. What would Oxford give Jenny that David can’t? Of course, they themselves get to benefit from his largesse, and the same part of him that treats Jenny like a princess treats her parents like king and queen of the realm. Let’s hope you’re a little less trusting on your watch, hmm?

Education 3: Education!

One of the running themes in the film is education itself, particularly for a woman, and most particularly for a woman in 1961. Jenny’s run-ins with her teacher (played by Olivia Williams) and her headmistress (played by Emma Thompson) seem to give her a grim glimpse of one of the only professional hierarchy available to women at that time (“There’s also the civil service,” her headmistress weakly tries to reassure her.) Why not leave all that studying and Latin translating behind and take a shortcut to satin pumps and trips to Paris? Jenny asks a lot of questions and nobody seems to be able to answer her to her satisfaction. What, she asks repeatedly, is the point of it all? There are answers within the film itself (although I won’t spoil the ending for you) but for a large part it’s left open-ended. The value of a liberal arts education, be you male or female, is always under review in modern times, but for different reasons than whether or not it’s necessary when you’re going to be marrying rich.

The film is not without its flaws. When a director has taken his or her time to painstakingly depict every emotion, confusion, and decision for 95% of the film, it’s all the more unsettling when the ending is abruptly wrapped up in a montage and some sudden voiceover narration. Not only is the effect trite where the rest of the film has been meaningful, it lessens the reality of the thing. Instead of thinking “these are real choices that people really had to make and still do make all the time,” I thought, “This…is just a movie, and here is it’s ending.”

On the whole, though, it brightens up the Oscar nominations list while toning it the heck down. No explosions, no aliens, nothing over the top, just a subtle slice of life that lets you make your own associations.

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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