AN EDUCATION'S sixteen year-old Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a very clever girl and she knows it. Jenny peppers her conversations with French phrases and imagines what awaits her beyond the suburban London home of her working class parents in 1961.
One rainy afternoon after orchestra practice Jenny meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a friendly man driving a maroon sports car. He offers to give her cello a ride home so as to protect the instrument from the elements. Easily charmed and flattered by this handsome older fellow, Jenny eventually hops in the car beside him and quickly bonds with the stranger.
Despite their age difference, David persuades Jenny's parents that spending time with her, such as taking her to a concert in the West End or to Oxford overnight, is all about broadening her knowledge and making important connections.
AN EDUCATION showcases several fine performances in this story about the dangers of youthful cleverness. Jenny isn't as worldly as she feels she is, and Mulligan, in her first major role, does keen and sensitive acting to peel back the effects of the schooling the character gets in prizing her own intelligence to a fault.
Jenny may think too highly of herself, but what teenager, especially a smart and studious one, doesn't think she has everything figured out? The naive confidence with which Mulligan plays the part is what makes Jenny's awakening to reality so heartbreaking and what makes her so attractive to David.
Sarsgaard excels as a smooth operator whose words and behavior around Jenny and her family misrepresent his true intentions. One's sixth sense suggests there is something creepy about him, yet he appears perfectly respectable.
While the title of AN EDUCATION refers to the instruction Jenny receives, it applies just as well to the lesson given to her father Jack (Alfred Molina). While suspicious, Jack permits himself to be persuaded by the elegantly enticing David because he believes the stranger can give his daughter social and economic advantages. Molina exudes love for his on-screen daughter and misguidedly acts in what he thinks are her best interests.
In the hands of director Lone Scherfig and screenwriter Nick Hornby, Lynn Barber's memoir is treated with a youthful innocence rather than an adult's experience and perhaps jadedness. It's a critical distinction because taking an older view of this story would taint how it is observed and reconciled. AN EDUCATION has sort of an abrupt climax to resolve the question at its center, but overall the cast and crew are graceful in telling this coming-of-age story.