Vince Guaraldi-style piano plays over a montage of school girls practicing walking with books on their heads, in cooking class using manual mixers, and with each other as partners during dance lessons--they are learning to be ladies. Finally, you see them letting loose with hula hoops spinning around their young waists and yelling on the lacrosse field, being girls.
So opens the 1961-London-set An Education, directed by Lone Scherfig from a screenplay by Nick Hornby based on the memoir of journalist Lynn Barber. Sixteen-year old Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a straight-A student and only child, doesn't get along with her silent but sympathetic mum Majorie (Cara Seymour) and defensively narrow-minded father Jack (Alfred Molina). She is undeniably smarter then they are, but they are at least wise enough to aim her toward an Oxford education.
Jenny desperately craves a taste of the artistic life. She's frustrated and unfulfilled by her cultureless suburban home and desires to embrace something her teacher Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams) once said in class: "Action is character."
When twice-her-age David (Peter Sarsgaard) stops at her bus stop in his ruby-red Bristol, even the car's modern lines feel dangerous. He charms her by offering to take her cello home--it's raining, he's a music lover, and she can safely walk alongside the car. When her face expands with laughter, you realize it's the first time she's done so in the movie. Later, he asks her to a classical concert across town, and she amusingly gives her consent for him to try and convince her parents into it, but it all feels so precarious, so rife with suspicion and questionable motivations--as any seduction of a younger woman by an older man must feel.
David succeeds in charming her naïve parents--a little bored themselves--and a relationship begins that transforms Jenny into a swinging '60s Barbie doll: off with her plaid wool skirt and Peter Pan collar and into floral sheath dresses with hair in a chignon and cigarette in hand.
His friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike) give Jenny drinks and a template for coupledom, her parents continue to believe the scripts David comes up with, and Jenny falls in love with being an adult. The headmistress at her school (Emma Thompson) warns her of a future with no education, but Jenny can look around and see the future of educated women, and decides she'd rather wine and dine. The house of cards David builds around himself crashes down eventually, but not before you feel every single emotion on bright Jenny's pale skin.