tek's rating: ½

An Education (PG-13)
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Caution: spoilers.

This 2009 film is set in England in 1961 (so I could just as well have put my review under "period pieces" as "coming of age"). Its central character is a clever and pretty girl named Jenny Mellor, who is clearly the best student at the girls' school which she attends. (There is a standard cliché of her teacher, Miss Stubbs, not wanting to call on Jenny because she's the only one who ever knows the answers.) Jenny studies hard because she hopes to get into Oxford, a goal which has been set for her by her father, Jack. She also plays the cello, as an extracurricular interest. Early in the film I get the idea that Jenny more or less enjoys both her academic and musical studies, though she resents the fact that her father is so demanding, and doesn't want her engaging in any activities which are just for fun, as they could, he feels, lower her chances of getting into Oxford. Meanwhile, she intends to indulge in her other passions once she does go away to college, such things as watching artistic movies, reading whatever she wants, listening to French music (she already speaks French), eating in fancy restaurants, becoming an existentialist, etc. All the things she can't do at home.

Then one day after a rehearsal for an upcoming concert, she's standing outside in the rain with her cello, apparently waiting for a ride (I wasn't clear on whether she was waiting for the bus, or what). But a man stops and offers her a ride, in a roundabout way. (It's actually rather charming and silly, and by directly addressing the inadvisability of accepting rides from strangers, easily negates any misgivings.) His name is David Goldman, and in addition to being charming, he clearly shares some of Jenny's interests. Later, on the day of the concert, flowers are delivered to Jenny from him, wishing her luck. Later still, she runs into him again, and thanks him. He invites her to a concert he's going to be attending with his friends Danny and Helen, which Jenny doesn't think her father would allow. However, when David meets Jenny's parents, Jack surprisingly does agree (at this point I felt it was mainly out of a sense of embarrassment he felt over some innocent thing he'd said about Jews, since David is Jewish, though it helped that David misrepresented Helen as his aunt). Like David, Danny also appreciated some of the same things as Jenny, such as fine art, classical music, etc. Helen's own tastes aren't so refined, and she certainly has no interest in education, but still she seems rather glamorous. (Helen, btw, is apparently Danny's girlfriend, though I never noticed any overt evidence of this.) Anyway, the four of them get along well together, and begin going to various places together, such as jazz clubs and an auction. Jenny is quickly seduced by the lifestyle, which she fits into fairly well, as it's all the sort of things she's always wanted to do.

Well, I should mention there's a boy Jenny's age named Graham, who she has been vaguely involved with, though I wouldn't quite call him a boyfriend. While the girls at Jenny's school gossip (with Jenny herself) about Jenny's relationship with David, it's some time before Graham finds out about it. And really, he's a fairly minor character in the movie; I don't think the story would really have been any different without him in it. Meanwhile, Jenny's relationship with David started out as a friendship (which I really think needn't have been disturbing if that's all it was, in spite of their marked age difference), but it quickly became obvious that sooner or later, it would become something more. Though Jenny, who was 16 at the start of the movie, wanted to remain a virgin until she turned 17 (a fact which David respected). Still... for all David's charm (which worked surprisingly well throughout the film on Jenny's parents as well as on Jenny herself), and the fact that he really never seemed to me like a predator, per se, but rather like a decent guy, in spite of his lies... there was something a bit disturbing about him. He never put any pressure on Jenny to do anything inappropriate (at least not until she herself made her own intentions clear, which makes it hard to blame him for that; and even then I wouldn't really call anything he said pressure). And I do believe that his feelings for her were genuinely based on the kind of person Jenny was, and were not born simply of lust, or anything like that. In fact, as much as the story is about Jenny's gradual loss of innocence, I couldn't help feeling like David had a certain degree of innocence of his own. That is to say... on some level, he wasn't emotionally equipped to fully understand the truth about his own feelings and actions, as if he was in a mild state of arrested development.

Anyway... Jenny eventually learns a mildly shocking truth about the kind of work David and Danny do, which I won't reveal, but Jenny was very briefly motivated to stop hanging out with them. Of course, it was a simple matter for David to convince her otherwise. Later still, there were more plot developments I don't want to reveal, including some of Jenny's choices, and yet another shocking fact she eventually learned about David. I'll just say that there is some unpleasantness, though nothing exactly tragic, and the movie ends on a positive note for Jenny. And all the actors gave very good performances. They were all fairly believable, and had perhaps a bit more depth than it might appear. Jack is the kind of character who it's easy to dislike, but there were often moments that I could see through all his bluster and overcontrolling nature to realize what was truly motivating him, something Jenny wouldn't get until a more obviously touching scene near the end of the film. Meanwhile, Jenny's mother, Marjorie, rarely said anything, but even in her silence it seemed clear that she was smarter and more level-headed than her husband (though she was every bit as easily charmed and manipulated by David as Jack was). Of course, I should mention that Jack is also the kind of person whose personality makes it hard to understand why his wife would have married him in the first place, but as I said... there was a sweeter depth to Jack's character, which I'm assuming she'd seen before Jenny even existed, and I'm sure she understood all along what made him act the way he did. Danny and Helen... well, they cared about Jenny, and Danny displayed some concern for the path David's relationship was taking with her, though he never made it clear why he was concerned. (At one point David suggested to Jenny that Danny was jealous, and in spite of the fact that earlier in the scene it felt like Danny could have had a similar interest in Jenny, I thought it was clear that wasn't actually the case.) When Jenny eventually learns the whole truth about David, she asks Danny and Helen why they never said anything to her, and Danny's response, I felt... was perhaps inadequate, but not an invalid point. On the other hand, Jenny had a similar question for her parents (not that they could have known the truth, as Danny and Helen did), but she was quite right... they should have known better, even without knowing the whole truth. In fact the only two people in the film who made any effort to dissuade Jenny from pursuing a relationship with David were her teacher, Miss Stubbs, and Miss Walters, the school's headmistress. However, I felt to a certain extent the reasons behind Miss Walters' words and actions were misplaced, and I couldn't help disliking her. Miss Stubbs, on the other hand, while seeming a bit dislikable at first, had at least a couple of scenes in which her concerns and genuine caring about Jenny were both clear and ultimately very helpful. (Jenny's poor choices concerning David, which she eventually realizes were an attempt to take a shortcut to the life she had always wanted and had hitherto worked so hard to achieve on her own, would have left her up the proverbial creek, if Miss Stubbs hadn't provided her with a paddle.)

What else can I say? The movie had some great music. The story was always entertaining, as well as making you think. Nothing was simple about the situation presented. I understand if some people will see David in an entirely negative light (and in the end, that seems rather justified), but to be fair, he could have been a hell of a lot worse. If you set aside the age difference between Jenny and him (which really isn't so great that I feel there's any justification in calling him even a borderline pedophile), as well as setting aside the more unsettling revelation about him later in the film... I honestly think his interest in Jenny was more pure than that of a great many people who engage in relationships with people of an appropriate age. And I hardly consider Jenny "ruined" by her experience (as is made clear by her closing narration). Anyway... that's all I can say. It was an excellent movie, though I'm not sure if I'll ever feel the need to watch it again (but on the other hand, I do feel I might as well hold on to the DVD, just in case)....


coming of age index