An Education in Genre

by Lewis Manalo

Earlier this week I warned readers off of a particular film due to its prejudicial stereotyping.  Today, I’m encouraging you to see An Education directed by Lone Scherfig and written by Nick Hornby because it’s just freakin’ good fun.

What’s this?  The salty, mentally-unstable war vet is urging you to see a British coming-of-age drama where the main character is a sixteen-year-old girl in the early 1960’s?  In a word: yes.  But also, no.

Though An Education has all the earmarks of the coming-of-age drama – budding first love, disapproving parents, that first sexual encounter – we don’t just check all the boxes and declare that we have a story.  At its heart, An Education is (much like the British novel the film makes strong allusions to) a mystery merely wearing the sheep’s wool of the familiar coming-of-age drama.

Jenny, played by cutie Carey Mulligan, falls for the charming older man David, played by Peter Sarsgaard, who, I guess, is also cute.  Everything is perfect between these two.  They share the same tastes, he takes her seriously, and he offers her a life of nightclubs and expensive high art that feels a world away from Jenny’s private school.  The mystery for the audience, who is well-schooled in these coming-of-age films, is, “Where is all this happiness going to go wrong?”

There are many possibilities and many red herrings.  For one, David is an older man.  He’s also a Jew.  Jenny’s father desperately wants her to go to Oxford.  Then there’s that charmingly awkward goofball with whom Jenny shares little glances with at orchestra practice. And to top it off, David makes his living at a somewhat shady business.

With so many things that can go wrong, and with the couple overcoming so many obstacles, the audience keeps rooting for their love.  But we know these coming-of-age dramas are supposed to end in disillusionment, which is how the very mystery exists for us.  All we need to solve the case is a deerstalker, a cloak, and a familiarity with the genre.

But by the end of the movie, most of you will react like you’d just read an Agatha Christie novel:  you will smack yourselves in the forehead for not seeing the culprit lurking underneath our noses the entire time.

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