British import An Education's title is a double entendre referencing two very different types of instruction that the film's 16-year-old heroine finds herself choosing between: the education she receives in her all-girls school as she grinds her way toward Oxford and the one she receives on the arm of an older man, who whisks her to art auctions, jazz clubs, and gay Paris.
Set in early-'60s suburban London, a place just beginning to swing, An Education presents a few crucial months in the life of Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a bright-eyed young brunette conquering her studies under the watchful eye of her striving but only superficially strict middle-class parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour).
The film's opening credits present a montage of of-the-era teen girldom: field hockey, hula hoops, instruction in cooking and poise. But Mulligan's Jenny is Gidget as burgeoning sophisticate, punctuating her bubbling classmate conclaves with Camus jokes and illicit cigarettes and sweetly deflecting the awkward advances of a bike-riding boy out of her league.
"I'm going to talk to people who know lots about lots," she exclaims to friends about her Oxford future. "I'm going to read what I want and wear black. Listen to music. Look at paintings. See films." Her father complains that "French singing is not on the syllabus," but Jenny's cultural desires extend beyond what looks good on a college admissions essay and beyond her parents' comprehension, which makes her a prime target for David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard), an alluring man more than twice her age who forces a meet-cute by picking up a soaking Jenny and her endangered cello while she waits for a bus after orchestra practice.
And, as David takes Jenny from a classical concert to an after-hours club boasting a different kind of symphony — that of smoke and drink and Etta James covers and heady conversation — that Jane Eyre paper for English class doesn't seem quite so important.
There are subtle signs of trouble along the way, but director Lone Scherfig doesn't let the viewer know any more than Jenny, so the unease increases gradually. There's a good Hitchcockian thriller lurking beneath the surface (echoes of Suspicion and Shadow of a Doubt) as the audience tries to figure out where David fits on the misguided-to-dangerous scale, though the potential violence is more psychological and emotional than physical.
Like most coming-of-age stories, this one is heavily dependent on its lead performance, which is a doozy. Mulligan was 22 when An Education was shot, but she plays 16 going on 17 flawlessly. The whole movie could be experienced through Mulligan's reaction shots, and she and Scherfig handle the treacherous territory of sexual awakening with a winning mix of bluntness and restraint. It's a star-making performance.