— While Sundance fave “An Education” isn’t quite the unassailable piece of perfection that early reviews touted it as being, this smart and sexy story of a British teen girl’s flowering into ripeness circa 1961 heralds the arrival of Carey Mulligan, a young actress whose burgeoning career will no doubt be divided into the periods before this movie and after it.
Mulligan stars as Jenny, a too-smart-by half adolescent who smokes unfiltered Gauloises and listens to Juliette Greco and longs to be sophisticated and worldly. Her domineering but loving father Jack (Alfred Molina) just wants her to spend more time studying Latin so she can get into Oxford.
It’s no wonder that Jenny finds herself unable to resist the charms of David (Peter Sarsgaard), a 30-ish rake who whisks her into his world of art, music and heady conversation. Despite their age difference, David completely wins over Jack and Jenny’s mother Marjorie (Cara Seymour), and in no time David is whisking the young girl away for weekends in the country, usually in the company of his friend Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Danny’s pretty but vain arm-candy Helen (Rosamund Pike).
Audience members will find themselves spotting David’s too-good-to-be-true–ness long before Jenny does, but then the person in the doomed relationship is always the last to know. Before the other shoe drops, however, Jenny considers abandoning her studies, much to the chagrin of her English teacher (Olivia Williams) and headmistress (Emma Thompson). It’s this turning point that reveals Jack’s real motivations behind his desire to send Jenny off to the best schools, and that revelation winds up being as much of an education to the girl as her reckless affair.
Adapting Lynn Barber’s memoir, screenwriter Nick Hornby (the novelist behind “High Fidelity” and “About a Boy,” among others) and director Lone Scherfig (“Italian for Beginners”) imbue the movie with a sprightly and delightful energy; working in tandem with Mulligan, the filmmakers make Jenny burst off the screen with intelligence, restlessness and potential.
By the final third of “An Education,” however, Jenny has to learn the hard life lessons, and Hornby and Scherfig can’t stop the air from leaking out of the movie. No one expects the moral of a story to be as fun as the transgressive part, but the storytelling suffers along with the heroine.
Led by Mulligan, whose work here is indelible and exciting, the cast is uniformly excellent. Sarsgaard makes a much more convincing Brit than you’d think, and Molina, Cooper, Pike, Williams and especially Thompson make their relatively brief screen time count. (Keep your eyes peeled for an especially quick cameo by Sally Hawkins from “Happy-Go-Lucky.”)
Transitioning from adolescence to adulthood is never easy; it’s just too bad that “An Education” has such a hard time weathering that very change in its protagonist. But even if the story gets derailed, the early part of the ride is such fun that you’ll want to take the journey.
Follow msnbc.com Movie Critic Alonso Duralde at http://www.twitter.com/MSNBCalonso.