Paths aren’t paved before they’re walked on in this lifetime. For the average middle-class teenager, life-changing moments like attending college and starting a family are planned before the graduation cap tassel is switched over to the left. The notion of impermanence that every human being soon recognizes as the ultimate current-shifter doesn’t seem to be dawned on until the many twists and turns steer you off the road.
An Education is a film based on an autobiographical article by journalist Lynn Barber that ventures into the darker corners of a young woman’s coming of age. Jenny Mellor (Carey Mulligan), a 16-year-old Oxford-bound schoolgirl with incandescent literary and musical taste, is wise beyond her years although she feels stuck living a life that differs greatly from her daydreams. All the wit in the world couldn’t save anyone from the alluring whisper of the devil on the shoulder, or in this case the Prince Charming every girl hopes to sweep her off her feet.
The abundance of artistic culture that 1961 London high society offered is something Jenny felt deprived of, before an unlucky day of getting caught in the rain leads her to be whisked away in a Bristol 405 by David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard), a man twice her age. She’s thrusted into an unfamiliar surrounding fogged by cigarette smoke where she can open her eyes and remain with her head above the clouds. Even though she quickly sees through the mist of this superficial lifestyle and uncovers secrets hidden by her lover, she chooses to continue on her detour, purposely disregarding the signals warning her to turn back.
Jenny isn’t a naive girl, just an impressionable one who is sick of living her life vicariously through fictional people in books to experience the world. She is well aware of the path she chose, but is blind to the heartbreak and regret waiting for her at the end. Her impatience to grow up quickly and impulse behind leaving school is at the heart of her fear when she says, “If people die the moment that they graduate, then surely it’s the things we do beforehand that count.” Fortunately, she is given a chance to make her wrongs right by trailing back to the routined life she ran away from. Sad endings aren’t so somber when a fallen character is able to redeem themselves, especially when the wisdom derived from it is something more valuable that a bottle of champagne.
Catherine Geissler is a staff writer for MOVE magazine and part of the media team that did live blogging for the True/False Film Festival. For more information, visit her on Twitter.