No longer a girl and not yet a woman, the heroine of "An Education" sizes up life as a female in 1961 London. To 16-year-old Jenny, her choice is strictly binary: the straight edges of square, bourgeois, mundane suburban life versus cultured high society. Rejecting the childcare-and-dishwashing paradigm of her mother and the lonely bachelorette life of her mousy English teacher, Jenny romanticizes the French, sneaks smokes and succumbs to the charms of a man nearly twice her age.
This is, in broad strokes, the story of Lynn Barber, adapted by novelist Nick Hornby from her autobiographical essay. As rethought by Hornby ("About a Boy") and director Lone Scherfig ("Italian for Beginners"), "An Education" is a fairly standard-issue coming-of-age tale hinging on the disillusionment at the end of the road from innocence to experience. When 30-something David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard) offers Jenny (Carey Mulligan) and her cello a ride in his Bristol, the girl discovers a witty and urbane alternative to her unexciting but age-appropriate boyfriend Graham (Matthew Beard), not to mention evenings spent studying Latin to achieve an all-but-foregone conclusion of studying English at Oxford.
What David offers begins with a Ravel concert in the West End, chased by a late supper and drinks with David's friends, 20-something couple Danny and Helen (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike). David and Danny are in business together (shady business, natch). Helen -- a pretty and pretty dumb bird in a gilded cage -- represents another foreboding potential future for Jenny, should she decide to forego Oxford for life in David's nimble shadow. Scherfig feasts on the dramatic irony borne of the audience's knowledge of what's around the corner: swingin' '60s London and emboldened feminism.
More than anything, "An Education" stands apart from the pack due to its company of players. Mulligan is a shoo-in for a Best Actress nod from the Academy: She ably projects Jenny's self-possession and her needy desire. Scherfig cannily cast Cara Seymour -- who resembles an older Mulligan -- as Jenny's flounderingly helpless mum, and rhymes Beard's socially awkward teen with Alfred Molina as Jenny's wet-blanket dad. It's easy to understand Jenny's desperation to escape, and David's pull on Jenny and her parents, all of whom seem eager to be taken in by his smooth smile and smoother lies. Sarsgaard proves delicately insinuating and weirdly emotionally arrested, just the combination for a hard-to-peg cradle-robber.
The film's greatest strength may well be how Sarsgaard, in concert with Hornby and Scherfig, seduces the audience along with Jenny, promising the world and opening a Pandora's Box of social ambiguity. The teen has a point when she presses her bitter schoolmarm (Emma Thompson): "It's not enough to educate us anymore, Miss Walters. You've got to tell us why you're doing it. ... You never know: Someone else might want to know the point of it all one day."
It's a request, though, that Hornby never satisfactorily fulfills, even as the film moralizes about a conventional "right" choice for the future that's feebly described as being "enough." At least the end lightly strikes an unresolved chord.