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An Education

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Many protagonists in coming-of-age stories have their choices boiled down to two options: what their parents want them to do and some other thing. “An Education” gives us a heroine with far more influences than that pulling on her, none of them terribly sinister or dire but enough to overwhelm a 16-year-old. Seeing her navigate the perilous waters of adolescence with aplomb and good humor is what makes “An Education” such a chipper, entertaining treat.

The girl is Jenny, played by 24-year-old Carey Mulligan in one of the year’s most memorable breakout performances. It is 1961 in London, and Jenny is bright, pretty, and full of what the French call joie de vivre. Jenny would call it that, too, enamored as she is of the French language. She also adores art and classical music and other snooty things, but she is not snooty. She is cheerful and effervescent, and on the fast track to attend Oxford next year.

Her affectionate but serious father, Jack (Alfred Molina), shapes Jenny’s agenda for maximum Oxford-admissions-board-impressing potential. Playing the cello is great, for example, but only if it doesn’t take too much time away from studying Latin. Jack wants the best for his daughter, and is glad to have already determined what “the best” is: Oxford, good education, meet a husband, get married. He has no patience for Jenny’s immature quasi-boyfriend, Graham (Matthew Beard), who’s thinking of taking a year off before going to college (if you can imagine such a waste of time!). Through it all, Jenny’s mother (Cara Seymour), a woman of few words — it’s hard to be of many words with Jack around — mostly lets her husband run things.

One day Jenny meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), who’s about 30, sophisticated, and interested in her. The age of consent in England is 16, so legality isn’t an issue. Still, Jenny’s parents will surely never allow her to date a man so much older than her. Ah, but they do, after David charms them with his gift for lie-telling and butt-kissing. (Sarsgaard’s British accent isn’t great, but few actors are better at conveying smarmy insincerity in such a way that the audience catches it but the other characters don’t.)

Through David, Jenny gets a taste of the cosmopolitan world she’s always dreamed of: going to concerts, attending art auctions, eating fancy food, and having an older boyfriend. (The girls at her private school are so jealous!) David’s pal Danny (Dominic Cooper) is a hoot, too, and his girlfriend, Helen (Rosamund Pike), welcomes Jenny into their circle.

Yet something is amiss. Jenny can’t pin down what, exactly, David does for a living. Something about property and art collecting and who-knows-what-else. He isn’t sleazy, though. In fact, he doesn’t even pressure Jenny for sex. She wants to wait until she’s 17 to lose her virginity, and he says he’s OK with that.

Based on Lynn Barber’s memoir and adapted by Nick Hornby (“About a Boy”), “An Education” resides in that magical place where movies are breezy, funny, and smart but also realistic and thoughtful. The issues at hand really are serious: the age difference between Jenny and David, the question of how important a woman’s education is in 1960s British society, matters of “class” and “taste” and “decency,” etc. But rather than be bogged down by them, or treat them too frivolously, the film — confidently directed by Lone Scherfig (“Italian for Beginners”) — presents Jenny’s story realistically, neither as farce nor as melodrama.

Anyone can relate to Jenny’s adolescent uncertainty. She wants Oxford as much as her father does, though she bristles at the idea that the end goal is just to become a housewife. She sees how Helen, vacuous and simple-minded, eschews education but lives a fabulous life, while her schoolteacher (Olivia Williams) and headmistress (Emma Thompson) are well educated but boring. Is there a middle ground for Jenny? And is there room for her to make a few mistakes, or will that ruin everything?

There’s something very likable about almost everyone in the film, even the characters who do naughty things, because they’re all plausible. No one is a villain or a saint. Scherfig sometimes leans too much toward tidying things up, especially in the last 15 minutes, and I’m not clear on why David’s being Jewish — mentioned early on and then never again — was mentioned at all. But the warm, vulnerable performances by Mulligan and Molina in particular are extremely satisfying, and the film is a joy to watch.

B+ (1 hr., 40 min.; PG-13, a few mild sexual situations.)