Every now and then a performance comes along that takes Sundance by storm. This year, it's Carey Mulligan's starmaking turn as a 16-year-old schoolgirl who falls under the spell of an older man in early 1960s London in "An Education."

Topped by a fine cast, a first-rate script by Nick Hornby and tight direction by Lone Scherfig, the film is a smart, moving but not inaccessible entry in the coming-of-age canon. Sony Pictures Classics scooped up the picture after a heated bidding war and should do well with its investment.

Scherfig and her team do a convincing job creating a repressed London still reeling from World War II and not yet exploding with the counterculture. It's a period when a seismic shift starts to stir.

It's a fearful, drab world, and no one is more bored with it than Jenny (Mulligan), a straight-A student (except for Latin) at an all-girls school. Her ambition is to wear black, smoke cigarettes, read books and try anything new. Enter David (Peter Sarsgaard), a knight in a shining sports car who gives her an education she wasn't expecting.

Their meeting in the pouring rain on a London street is one of the cutest of meet-cutes. A music lover, David tells her to put the cello she's carrying into his car to keep it dry and walk alongside because surely she wouldn't take a ride with a strange man. Who could resist?

The biggest obstacle to their relationship is Jenny's father, Jack (the wonderful Alfred Molina), a middle-class parent who wants the best for his daughter. That means Oxford, and he makes sure that Jenny has the right extra- curricular activities to get in.

David is not one of those activities, but he sweet-talks Jack into allowing him to take Jenny to a concert in the West End. Before long, David is taking Jenny off to Oxford for the weekend, which in Jack's distorted vision will be an asset to furthering her education.

David is sweet, and he respects Jenny's wishes to remain a virgin until she's 17, which is just around the corner. Hornby's script keeps up the character's mystery, and Scherfig wisely doesn't push it. Eventually, what he's up to is revealed, and it's not on the up and up.

But Jenny is smitten and turns 17 in Paris, her dream come true. At that age, her parents should step in, but Jack and his wife (Cara Seymour) are blinded by the upward mobility the nouveau riche David represents for the family.

Jenny doesn't understand the subtle class warfare at work; all she sees is a way out of her dreary life, though perhaps one that threatens her future. Mulligan captures every nuance of the character with understated charm. Her transformation from an English schoolgirl in a gray uniform to a lovely young and desirable woman is nothing short of miraculous.

But without Sarsgaard's restrained, morally ambiguous performance, Mulligan would not shine as brightly. What makes "An Education" special are the social forces beneath the surface that inform these all-too-human characters. (partialdiff)
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