Most Overlooked Movie of 2009: An Education

Posted on 22 March 2010 by Quaid

Now, I know it’s probably frowned upon to list an Academy Award nominated film as “most overlooked,” but it only got one acting nomination…and nobody cared, anyway.

In the grand scheme of things, Lone Scherfig’s adaptation of Lynn Barber’s memoir was completely shafted, picking up no Oscars, no Golden Globes…no awards at all that anyone not steeped in the movie industry would recognize as an achievement.

Part of the problem, of course, is that the movie came out too damn early.  It premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, got released in random territories around the world, and then was dumped in the US with a lackluster October release.  Now, a movie coming out early in the year doesn’t have to kill its awards buzz.  Crash managed to pick up the top Oscar prize even though it was released in the first quarter of the year.  But that film had some serious star power and cash behind it…if there was ever an argument that you can buy an Oscar, that was it.

An Education, though, drifted off into the ether of “good movies” that nobody ever really bothers to see.  People remarked about Carey Mulligan’s fantastic turn as an in-over-her-head teenager caught up in the glitz and glamor of a life she’d never seen, but the movie, itself, was never seen as something all that unique.

On the surface, it isn’t.  The movie follows 17-year-old Jenny as she struggles to find her place in 1960′s London.   She meets a much older man (David, played by the creepy-but-kind Peter Sarsgaard) who shows her the time of her life and promises her the world…though, as you would suspect, he has ulterior motives.

It’s your typical run-of-the-mill dirty-old-man story, right?  Nope.  Not at all, really.  And the reason the movie can overcome its obvious plot pitfalls is its superb screenplay crafted by the incomparable Nick Hornby.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m a Hornby fan through and through.  High Fidelity might just eek its way onto my top-five movies of all-time list (get it?  GET IT?), and I love the wit and affection in About a Boy (even though I understand Hornby was a little miffed with the film’s somewhat-sappy ending).  As far as novels go, Hornby’s work is almost always superb, filled with strong and interesting characters dealing with subtle internal dilemmas that don’t always have black-and-white answers.

So even though this is a period piece about a 17-year-old girl, Hornby is a perfect match for the material.  He crafts characters whose motivations are muddy to themselves but clear to the audience.  He creates a world where the “right thing to do” isn’t always clear, and we can completely understand almost every character’s actions…even the creepy old man.

The thing that I most love about the movie is that it never really gets bogged-down in victim/victimizer roles.  Characters are making very conscious decisions.  Every lie told has a reason, and while we cannot in a million years condone the actions of most of our “villains” (a word I use very loosely in this context), we can at least understand their actions.

The same can be said for our main character.  Her ability to challenge the status-quo and ask tough questions about her role in society is what makes this character interesting, strong, and resilient.  At the end of the movie (SPOILERS AHOY), you get the feeling that even though she’s been down a hard road, Jenny has very few regrets.  She’s a character who has learned from her mistakes and refuses to be a helpless victim.

It’s the characters refusal to play the “easy” roles (and Hornby’s refusal to write them as two-dimensional characters) that makes this movie great.  I’ve heard people dismiss this movie out-of-hand for glorifying borderline pedophilia, and I can’t disagree with that argument more.  By giving us a strong and interesting 17-year-old character tempted by the sophistication and excitement of another life, An Education makes its arguments in a more nuanced and complicated way.  Is David taking advantage of the young woman?  Absolutely, and he deserves to be punished for it.  At the same time that the relationship is creepy and inappropriate, however, it isn’t all about the sex.  For good or bad, it’s the emotional aspect of this relationship that really gives weight to David’s betrayal.

This movie is about the choices that affect the paths our lives take.  The end of the movie drops the ball a bit with an unnecessary Rocky-style montage, but I can appreciate the sentiment.  Because the movie isn’t about overcoming obstacles against all odds…it’s about personal growth in the face of bad decisions.  The last line of the movie sums this sentiment up completely, and we realize that Jenny has a complete appreciation for everything that’s happened to her.  That doesn’t mean she doesn’t see the error of her ways, but she understands the profound lessons she’s learned along the way.

And that’s a refreshing thing.

If you’re still on the fence about this one, just know that Alfred Molina is in it as Jenny’s overprotective, somewhat thick father.  And he’s awesome.  And he’s Alfred Molina.

‘Nuff said.

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2 Comments For This Post

  1. Colleen Claes Says:

    Don’t remind me! I *still* have to see it. Meant to during the Chicago International Film Festival, but it sold out very quickly. I am definitely getting around to this soon…

  2. HansKlopek Says:

    Man, talk about two totally different perspectives on a movie. For me, it totally didn’t work. First of all, the David character is played by Sarsgaard as a bit of creeper, yes, but also as a bit of a sexual and romantic nerd. He may be 35, but Sarsgaard plays him with a level of uncertainty and inexperience that makes him feel emotionally younger. Late in the film, when it is revealed Jenny was just one of many young girls he had tried to rope into an affair, there was a disconnect between the performance and the way the audience is supposed to perceive him in this moment. Didn’t work for me.

    Also, I simply thought the relationship between David and Jenny should have been more sharply drawn. They simply bond over film, music, art and culture and that’s it. There really doesn’t seem to be any heavy emotional connection between them. Jenny seems to be in love with the glamorous life that David presents to her. Hornby should have created some scenes that really fleshed out both of their characters and created a real bond between them. Maybe introduce some damage that David experienced in the past that Jenny can connect with. That way, when the lie is revealed toward the end of the film, it feels that much more powerful because we feel that they have a stronger emotional bond.

    And really, my biggest problem with the film is the ease of it’s resolution. Jenny learns, yes, but also is able to step back into her old life without many problems. David leaves the scene of the crime and never has to re-enter, making their whole relationship feel just a bit frivolous. I found myself asking, ‘why should I care when it was so easy for both of these people to simply walk away?’ I think that speaks to an overarching weakness of the movie; the whole tone seems to reflect that of a wistful remembrance, something someone did when they were young and stupid and have grown beyond at this point. I think that’s a problem because that perspective takes a lot of the weight out of the story–makes it feel a little cheap and easy.

    I also didn’t think too much of the acting in the piece. Carey Mulligan does an admirable job carrying the film, but she seemed like a 22-year-old desperately trying to look 16. Her voice always feels like that of a mature older person. I know the point is that Jenny is supposed to seem older than her years, but in using that philosophy in casting the part, you rob the character of her much needed innocence.

    So, there’s my two cents. I just had such a strong reaction to the movie because it was one I really expected to like a whole lot. Unfortunately, parts of it just didn’t work for me.

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