Sunday, January 3, 2010

NOT A GIRL, NOT YET A WOMAN

Oh, dear, not another coming-of-age drama featuring a little-known young actress being touted as a surefire Oscar contender. Those were my thoughts exactly last year when I first heard about An Education, a coming-of-age drama featuring a little-known young actress being touted as a surefire Oscar contender.

Though An Education is indeed all of the above, thankfully, it's so much more. Most of all, it's solidly entertaining, with an excellent story, a strong cast, pretty locations and music that made me want to rush out and buy the soundtrack before the closing credits. (Miss the closing credits, though, and miss a new Duffy song called "Smoke Without Fire.") All of the praise and honors being bestowed on Carey Mulligan, the little-known young actress being touted as a surefire Oscar contender, isn't hyperbole. She's that good. Her performance feels so effortless and natural. Think Kate Winslet in Sense And Sensibility, before she became Oscar bait and occasionally affected as hell.

Both the actress and character also remind me of Ellen Page as Juno two years ago, but unlike Ellen and Juno, Carey and Jenny, the 16-going-on-17-year-old schoolgirl character she plays in An Education, are based in 1960's London, so they aren't mired in 21st-century irony and cooler-than-school trappings. Not that I didn't like Juno, but it was so self-conscious that it was hard to love either the movie or the girl.

But love Jenny and An Education I do. And while this is mainly Carey's show, the supporting cast do more than stand on the film's sidelines. I don't understand why Peter Sarsgaard, as Jenny's older lover, David, and Alfred Molina, as her dad, aren't generating more Oscar buzz. Both actors seem to get overlooked year after year, and this would be the perfect vehicle for them to finally be recognized.

Cara Seymour, as Jenny's mom, is perfectly cast; she and Carey do look like they could be related. Olivia Williams, as one of her teachers, and Rosamund Pike, as the girlfriend of David's best friend Danny, register strongly. So does Emma Thompson, but she can play characters like the brittle headmistress at Jenny's school in her sleep. I hope she's not prematurely entering her Dame Judi Dench years. Sally Hawkins turns up briefly as David's wife to remind us that just one year ago, she was Carey Mulligan, getting raves and critical citations (but alas, no Oscar nod) for Happy-Go-Lucky.

Interestingly and unexpectedly, most impressive of all is Dominic Cooper (left), who barely made a blip on my radar last year in Mamma Mia! He's cocky-sexy and has more chemistry with Carey than Peter Sarsgaard. As good as Peter is, I can't help but wonder if the love story would have had a little more fire had he and Dominic switched roles. Peter sells the drama, but I think Dominic may have been more successful selling the charming of Jenny's parents and made it more believable that they would entrust with him their teenage daughter. (Though that's my one gripe with the film, I'm glad it didn't collapse into May-September-relationship drama.)

But Dominic no doubt will have his day. Right now I've got more important things to ponder anyway. Like if Best Performance By An Actress In A Leading Role comes down to Meryl Vs. Carey, who will I root for? If I don't let my sentimentality get in the way, there'll be no contest. And the Oscar should go to...

Carey Mulligan!
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