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Life Lessons: School's out for star in the making Carey Mulligan in An Education 

School's out for star in the making Carey Mulligan in An Education.

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There were two movies at the theater this weekend portraying the experiences of teenage girls as they navigate the territory between girlishness and womanhood. One of these films claimed teenage girls to be the powerless victims of men's will and lust. That would be the other film reviewed on this page, the latest installment of the Twilight saga, New Moon.

The other film is one of the best of the year and gives teenage girls a space and respect they're rarely allowed. An Education is encouraging and supportive, centering on Jenny - a strong, rounded, complex character who makes decisions that have realistic consequences. It's a refreshing and heartening film, and by its mere existence questions the usually harsh treatment of young women in film. It also makes the bold claim that their minds are more important than their bodies, but if they want to have a bit of fun they don't have to be ruined. Jenny is not the mere facilitator of some man's fulfilled destiny, but the architect of her own.

It's interesting that a film so revolutionary in its stance is set in suburban London right before the Swinging Sixties kicked in. Jenny is an intellectual 16 year old who listens to French music and discusses existentialism. She plans to get into Oxford University, but one afternoon she meets David, an exciting older man with a glamorous lifestyle full of travel and culture. Cliché would dictate that Jenny be used and abused by David, punished for her stupidity, and then perhaps redeemed. However, Jenny very much enjoys the parties, the concerts, the clothes, and the trips to Paris that David provides. She gains from the fun, and although we know early on it will not end happily, she lives to tell her tale with confidence and joie de vivre.

Actress Carey Mulligan creates a character in Jenny that shows the disparity between her real-life experience and her vicarious experiences of other lives. The pristine performance allows Jenny to appear both naïve and sophisticated. Jenny and David's relationship is not typical; by the conclusion it is he who elicits pity and concern. David and his friends are the sort of 'careless' people F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about in The Great Gatsby. Jenny is charmed by them and their lives, but only as much as she wants to be charmed.

A British film, funded by the BBC and based on writer Nick Hornby's novel - he of High Fidelity and About A Boy fame - An Education is packed full of perfect performances and moments, even though it feels so small in scope. There are a couple made-for-television gaffes (the glib opening credits and the perfunctory final narration, in particular) that so often pervade British movies, cultivated by an industry habitually downplaying its talents. Danish director Lone Scherfig appears sometimes unsure of the quality of her own work and doesn't give it enough fanfare.

The similarities between New Moon and An Education are startling, and I can highly recommend the interesting experience of a double feature. But only if New Moon is seen first, to avoid being left with a bad taste. Where Bella is passive and buckled and dark, Jenny is active and outgoing and bright. Where Bella is unhinged, Jenny is sane. Where Bella is doomed to vampires and werewolves, Jenny has a hopeful, colorful life, based in an intriguing reality. One guess as to which is more inspiring to the uncertain life of a modern teenage girl.

An Education ★★★★★

Starring: Carey Mulligan, Peter
Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina. Directed by Lone Scherfig. Written by Nick Hornby.
Rated PG-13.


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