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.