Thursday, January 7, 2010

A hobby is a hobby.

Early in Lone Scherfig's An Education, Jenny is seen reading a copy of Albert Camus's existentialist tome, The Outsider, while sitting with her classmates in an English cafe. In a way, this is everything you need to know about Jenny, a 16-year-old Twickenham schoolgirl. She’s a bit of an outsider herself. Not that she doesn’t have friends or even the attention of the boys in her class. It’s that she’s better than all of it. She’s a big fish in a small pond. Her ambitions to attend Oxford are to experience the finer things in life. She wants to listen to good music, eat at good restaurants, watch French movies, discuss--obviously--existentialist novels. But to her father, a post-secondary education is simply the most practical alternative in the event she doesn’t find a husband to support her. When David, an older, richer, more worldly man drives up to her at the bus stop on a cold, rainy English afternoon, she finds her way to a bigger pond.

The story of a thirty-something seducing a 16-year-old in pre-hippie London may sound more like a TV movie-of-the-week, but An Education is smarter and more subtle. At its surface (and what a slick, shiny surface it is), the film tracks Jenny and David's courtship and the whirlwind of opportunity it creates for her to live a world outside the doldrums of her Twickenham existence. Through David, she gets to experience her ambitions first-hand, bouncing from art auctions to jazz clubs to fancy restaurants to a visit to Oxford. Instead of listening to French records in her bedroom or watching French movies at the cinema, she actually gets to visit Paris.

But underneath it, An Education explores what it means to be complicit in the lifestyle you choose (or choose to turn your back on). Complicity seems to be the oft-overlooked component of the perpetually dissatisfied. Our lives, despite the certain presence of unchangeable social, economic, and physiological factors, are of our own making. It may or may not turn out as planned but we all have some sort of hand in creating and changing it. When Jenny decides to overlook some seedier aspects of what David does for a living or contemplates not attending Oxford at all, they are life-defining moments of her own choosing. When Jenny's parents allow their daughter to date a wealthy man more than twice her age, they are complicit in whatever the resulting fallout may be.

At the center of the film is of course Jenny, in a performance by Carey Mulligan that will almost certainly earn her an Oscar nomination. It's one that requires her to display quite a range--from idealistic to cynical; from poised to wide-eyed and back again. In so many movies these days, we are required to laugh at the characters. We look down on them for their stupidity or ignorance and, in many cases, these films want us to find these traits acceptable or even endearing. It is rare and refreshing to see a character as intellectually present as Jenny, one who--despite her obvious youth and naïveté--just sort of gets it all:

I’m still trying to work out what
makes good things good. It’s
hard, isn’t it?

The thing is, Jenny, you know,
without necessarily being able to
explain why. You’ve got taste.
That’s not even half the
battle. That’s the whole war.