19 October 2009

The Bold and the Beautiful, The Education of Jenny


Here's to Cathy and Patty, Marcia and Jan, Gidget and all those other teen girls of the 1960's. A toast to your purity! Yes, there were hi jinks, you had old dad worried a couple of times, but in the end you never -- what was that oft used sitcom phrase? -- "did anything wrong." No siree. You stayed a virgin, stayed in school and eschewed cigarettes and alcohol and, God forbid, drugs. Perhaps best of all, you remained, forever young.

Now here's to Jenny. An altogether different teenage girl from the Sixties and no we're not talking about the fact that she's from England. Jenny is more clever by half than the rest. Set for Oxford, not just off to State (rah, rah, rah!). Here's another teen girl giving dear old dad fits while good ole reliable mom tries to get a stain out of the casserole dish at 25 minutes to 12 on a Friday night. She's an independent sort (aren't they all?) a bit of wild streak (aren't they all?). Pretty as a picture (aren't they all?). Obsessed with all things French (aren't...hmmm). Maybe it's because Jenny lives in a movie rather than a TV show but she actually....

Danish director Lone Scherfig's An Education opened in theaters across the U.S. last weekend. It's the story of Jenny, a precocious 16 year old (she turns 17 during the course of the film) who meets an older, richer man who gives her an education unlike the one that is preparing for university. Carey Mulligan is Jenny and I think it safe to say a star has been born. Peter Sarsgaard is the corrupting influence, David. He's marvelous and we're quite used to that from him.

Jenny puts her counterparts from the small screen to shame. This is in no way a celebration of her smoking, drinking and..um, you know. We are acknowledging a young woman who thinks for herself and acts for herself and learns some great lessons in the process -- for herself. The single most important of these lessons is to take the very bold step of asking questions. To her school's headmistresses (Emma Thompson as, shall we say, you've never seen her before) she says that it is not enough that she and her school provide "an education" you must, Jenny says, explain why you're providing it.

Why. The single most important question a young adult can learn to ask. Don't just accept at face value that you must do this and have to do that. Insist on knowing why.

The importance of understanding the necessity of that question comes not through an intellectual process but by having acted. Jenny acts.

Innocence lost. Sad for a parent to see, another step in our loss of that baby who once clung to us. She's going to leave home someday. A woman.

We mostly grow up in fits and starts. It's rarely smooth. It can even be fatal. We can only be led by the hand so long before we're on our own. Sink or swim. At some point we dive into life ourselves. Take a chance. Experience is the worst teacher, it gives the test before presenting the lesson, someone once said.

We do these things when we're in our late teens, early 20's, life altering. Take off for Europe, jump in the sack with the wrong person, "experiment" with drugs. We start one thing and quit another. We think we know it all and only years later do we realize how bloody stupid we were. Or at least that's how we seem. But how could we have known? We had to try. It's best not to regret the follies of our youth. Live with them. Revel in the fact that you were once young and bold enough to take chances. Especially if you learned from them.

Jenny...Can't say, really. It would spoil the movie. It's safe to tell you that she grows very fast. There's a bit of that, what doesn't kill me makes me stronger stuff. One thing here -- and its important -- is that she has fun. We should never lose that, that recklessness, that urge to have a good time. It's not just that she's with David either, there are his glamorous friends, Danny and Helen (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike) and there's Paris for crying out loud. And nightclubs, and jazz and sophistication and class and...who could resist? They go on adventures! This education for Jenny is kinesthetic as well as auditory and linguistic. It's done with elan, not books.

An Education works because there are no stock figures. Jenny's father in particular (Alfred Molina) is wonderfully bigoted and pliable at the same time. Olivia Williams as Miss Stubbs is nuanced as "the teacher."
Sure, Ms. Mulligan steals the show. Not much of a film if she doesn't. She's got a face made for the big screen. She can play innocence and guile and wisdom in one take. Wonderful.

Yes, I love the sitcom teen girls of my youth. There were some crushes there. But they're pretty pathetic next to Jenny. A young woman who has the cheek to ask, "why?"

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