An Education/Easy A

Coming of age is a classic theme.  It’s a topic of seemingly endless potential to explore and examine from every angle, and it has been tackled by writers and artists since we first began leaving records of our experiences.   In all the thousands of years of stories about learning life’s hardest lessons for the first time, however, we’ve rarely had the opportunity to see a lady protagonist in a coming of age story outside of YA lit or John Hughes movies.

While buried under a pile of dirty tissues and cough drop wrappers this past week, I had the chance to see two relatively recent and equally delightful movies that do give us a lady perspective on the moments that make us real live adults.   Set fifty years and an ocean apart, 2009’s An Education and 2010’s Easy A both show us clever and curious heroines realizing the world isn’t quite what they expected it to be.

As exciting as it is to see two (2!) stories with women protagonists who aren’t having wacky adventures on their way to the alter by killing time in a vague writing related job, both Jenny and Olive are white, straight, able-bodied, conventionally attractive and middle class.   We still have miles to go before our art and culture actually reflect the experiences of all the people who consume it.  I’d love recommendations in the comments from readers towards stories on the screen or page that reflect a more diverse set of experiences of young women on the cusp of adulthood.

Easy A and An Education both feature extremely talented actresses.  Emma Stone and Carey Mulligan (respectively) each completely own the screen with their performances, and it’s obvious that they are each as smart and clever as the young women they are portraying.   Spoilers follow for both movies, so if you haven’t seen them you may want to turn away now.  (Go watch! You won’t be disappointed.)

In An Education, Carey Mulligan’s Jenny is a bright, middle class high school student in a London suburb.

She’s planning on attending Oxford, and it’s made clear that she’s worked extensively towards that goal by excelling in school, learning Latin and playing the cello.   She’s adored by her teacher Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams), pushed by her well-meaning parents and idolized a bit by her peers for her sophistication.   I identified with Jenny pretty quickly, I think we smart girls from small ponds have a unique combination of hubris and naïvete that can easily bring us as much trouble as it does success.  Floating on her dreams of traveling to interesting cities and meeting interesting people and talking of interesting things, Jenny is easily snookered by a smooth-talking jackass, played (to slimy-hot perfection) by Peter Sarsgaard.  I can’t judge, I would have been just as obtuse at 16 as Jenny is in the movie.   Jenny has a passionate fling with Sarsgaard’s David, who takes her to Paris and to fancy eateries.  Along the way, Jenny learns David and his business partner Danny (the rather dashing Dominic Cooper) earn their keep by moving black families into neighborhoods to scare away the wealthy whites and stealing art.  Charming. Jenny chooses to overlook this, and drops out of school when David (in a panic when Jenny discovers his livelihood) proposes.

Jenny’s parents are (at first puzzlingly) delighted, Miss Stubbs and the stuffy headmistress (Emma Thompson, in a small but memorable role) are aghast.  Jenny’s parents assume her marriage meets the same goal as an Oxford education, she’ll be taken care of financially.  As it turns out, even with an Oxford education, Jenny would likely only be able to find work as a teacher or in civil service.

Jenny’s plans unravel when she discovers David is married.  He actually lives right around the corner from her family.  Jenny visits his home and sees his wife and small son.  David’s wife (Poppy Montgomery) knows who she is instantly, commenting that she’s only a child and giving the impression Jenny is but the last in a long line of David’s indiscretions.   I think this scene is what earned Mulligan her Oscar nomination, in just a few seconds we see her grow up, her face reflecting years worth of wisdom occurring to her at once.   Jenny turns quickly to Miss Stubbs, and we see a montage of her studying hard.  It’s easy, in 2011, to scoff at her for taking the path she knew she didn’t want three or four scenes ago, but I think she made the best decision she could for 1961.  The movie ends with her opening the letter informing her of Oxford’s decision.

Easy A’s Olive is also a bright, middle class girl from the suburbs.

Blessed with parents (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson)  100x more fun and foreword than Jenny’s, Olive seems to have quite a lot going for her.  Like Jenny, Olive is a great student who has earned the respect of her teacher Mr. Griffith (Thomas Haden Church).  Olive’s troubles start with a tiny white lie, told to her best friend to avoid having to go camping with her and her kooky family.  Olive fibs that she has a date, but in fact spends the weekend being a boring, average, trustworthy teenager and becoming enamored of Natasha Bedingfield’s Pocketful of Sunshine)

Facing her friend on Monday, Olive’s little white like inadvertently becomes a huge, honking, life changing lie about losing her virginity, when then unleashes the full force of the school’s (Ojai High School, heh.) religious club (led by a trying-very-hard Amanda Bynes) on her suddenly erroneously slutty ass.  This leads to her friend, closeted Brandon, to ask if she’ll pretend to sleep with him to get the bullies who are making his life hell off his back long enough for him to get out of town.  Olive reluctantly agrees, and the two have loud and hilarious pretend sex at a party thrown by a popular girl.  Brandon is instantly heralded as a stud and Olive is instantly treated as though she has leprosy. Slutty, slutty leprosy.

Brandon, stud, tells a few socially awkward friends about Olive’s service to him, and they come to her with varying offers of gift cards, discount coupons and other such miscellany to get her to pretend to sleep with them, too.  Olive reluctantly agrees, but things soon get out of hand for her.  Her BFF won’t talk to her, the religious fringe are all up in her business and her market value is slipping from several hundred dollars at a store Olive chose to 20% off at Bed, Bath and Beyond.   Playing up her role at school by dressing provocatively has her teacher, Mr. Griffiths, worried about her as well.

Mr. Griffiths turns into a complication himself when a male student blames Olive for giving him an STI when in fact it was Mrs. Griffiths (played by the wonderful-at-evil Lisa Kudrow).  Evil Mrs. Griffiths talks Olive into taking the blame, if only to spare seeing Mr. Griffiths get hurt.

Olive ends up outing Mrs. Griffiths STI embellished indiscretions to Mr. Griffiths after being made a pariah at school. Everything unravels, leaving various people in all sorts of levels of mess.  Olive feels terrible, but she’s learned valuable lessons about how the world views sexuality differently depending on the gender (and sexuality) of those who are expressing it.    Dan Humphry from Gossip Girl is her only friend, and the school mascot, and Olive and UsuallyDan end up riding off into the sunset on a riding lawnmower.

Olive and Jenny are about as similar as two female characters separated by half a decade of feminism can be, they each make  colossal mistakes that many viewers can instantly empathize with while recognizing the inherent difficulties the mistakes will cause.   Both of them are battling against what they think the rest of the world, from their peers to their parents to their teachers, expect of them and what they want for themselves.  Both are smarter than the average teenager, and more curious about the world around them. Both take huge, foolish, passionate leaps with the best of intentions and little foresight to the consequences, but then pick themselves up and brush themselves off and keep going.

Olive and Jenny sort of span my generation, Jenny was the same age my mom was in 1961, and I’m conceivably old enough to have a daughter Olive’s age.   I tried to find the best example of a gen x protagonist that fit with these two, but I found myself stuck.   Winona Ryder’s Charlotte in Mermaids is the closest comparison I could make, as she’s less fluffy and a bit more fleshed out than the typical John Huges heroine.   What do you think, fellow gen xers?  Do we have a really great coming of age story about a women around our age?

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[E] Selena MacIntosh*

Selena MacIntosh is the owner and editor of Persephone Magazine. She also fixes it when it breaks. She is fueled by Diet Coke, coffee with a lot of cream in it, and cat hair.

5 thoughts on “An Education/Easy A”

  1. I’ll share my thoughts on “An Education” because it saw it last week in Netflix. I skipped your second half on “Easy A” because I haven’t seen it yet, Selena.

    First let me gush about Carrie Mulligan, a fresh bold surprise. Adored her sweet face with its sad/happy features paired with her mature voice–a slightly shocking combination but ideal for the role of Jenny– and gazelle legs that tottered in her high heels, but with toes slightly turned in like a young girl’s.

    Now the parents–oh ho, surprise, surprise! Guess who else was taken in by David’s smooth charm? Mum and Dad. They turn out to be hypocrites because they too have been wooed by David and what (they falsely believed) he represented: glamour, poshness, and brushes with celebrity. “Clive” Lewis?? These were not sophisticated people, just hard working middle-class folks who counted every shilling, pinned their hopes on their one child, and were scammed by this con man. I appreciate that the film didn’t show how the family was completely devastated by his crookery. And that it was up to Jenny to take hold of the reins and simply, boldly take action. i’ll bet dollars to donuts that an American production would have had a noisy knock down drag out confrontation with fistacuffs and several pieces of broken furniture.

    The key to David’s charm was that he was glib but not oily. He was the master of the soft sell. He asks permission to look at Jenny’s bare bosom which he does longingly and respectfully. And then he pulls her nightgown back up, keeping his word that he will respect her maiden state until she is ready, her 17th birthday. What a gentleman, what a cad! And thunderous applause for the birthday/tryst scene. We see Jenny in post coital reverie, standing at the window peering out. No great transformation or sudden Romeo and Juliet type of love mushy gushy sentiments, no “do I look any different now that I’m a woman” dialogue. She is wistful, a little disappointed and resigned that the deed is over, and wondering what the hello kitty is all that Bronte stormy nonsense that she’s been reading in school? Foolishness, right? Now let’s get back home to England and continue with life, school on the weekdays and glamorous outings at night.

    Both the head mistress and the English teacher are set up as foes to Jenny–they want to thwart her rebellious adventures, they symbolize the prison of life in dreary 60’s England, and worse they represent the bleak future that Jenny would have if she can’t make it into Oxford, which is a possible gateway to a happier life far far away. However they are NOT villains. They are foes because the films is told from Jenny’s POV. The warnings that both authority figures present are truths, but it is impossible for any teenaged girl to swallow and digest, especially Jenny because she is so smart, a little too smart for her own good at times.

    When Jenny discovers the truth on her own and has to eat crow she accepts the consequences, confesses, apologizes, reassembles that shattered pieces of her dream. The mirror of illusion is broken and shattered. The women both make the appropriate decisions regarding her. Yes the head mistress seems harsh, but come on how could she make an exception for this one girl when she has seen others have become “fallen” women? She is a representative of the education system and English society’s mores. The teacher is her savior, and the peek into her private life reveals to Jenny the hidden beauty of that “spinster” life.

    I also want to mention Rosamund Pike who has given the most original performance of the “dumb blond” that I have ever seen on screen. Helen is an ornamental piece full of glamor and beauty, but without the annoyance of stereotypical ditzy traits. She is a walking piece of art, and probably nicked from some bloke.

    Artistically I appreciated the quiet tone of this film. It was a coming of age story, but was very respectful in its approach. I admit I was hesitant to watch this because the subject matter set off warning bells: perv alert, seedy story, Lolita-esque themes, danger danger Will Robinson! Thank goodness I was wrong, very wrong. The beauty of the location shoots, props (the real Simon Goldman did have a luxe maroon Bristol car), the simple but elegant costumes made me long to watch those kitchen sink and parlor room dramas of that era.

    Now my recommendations for atypical coming of age films for teen girls:
    The Incredibly True Story of Two Girls in Love–teen girls, one Black, one White, from different socio economic backgrounds meet and fall in love
    Slums of Beverly Hills–with a family like this who needs enemies. Large bosomed girl in a “nomadic” family tries to figure out how to survive her peripatetic life, sex, in 70’s L.A.
    A Taste of Honey–misfit “ugly” Brit girl can’t get along with her Mum, has a quick affair with a Black boy, becomes pregnant, and gay buddy takes her in.
    Gas, Food Lodging–two sisters both alike in looks (great casting of Fairuza Balk and Ione Skye) who share a mother and absent father but not much else.
    Mi Vida Loca–life in and Echo Park, vato! Gang girls. Features a very early American appearance of Salma Hayek
    All Over Me–Claude is the “tomboy” who is the one of the few responsible people in her New York neighborhood. Her mom is a mess, her friend/crush is even worse. Claude keeps it together for everyone but who is going to be there for Claude when her life and psyche are at stake?
    Blue Denim–(okay this is an uneven film and the love story takes a leap of faith because you don’t get to see the action due to the Hays Code, but it’s worth a look see) Teen boy is pals with his best bud and schoolmate female friend/sometime annoyance. One night things go a little too far—>yup teen pregnancy. But wait even though this is a 50’s movie an illegal abortion is considered!

    One final note here is Lynn Barber’s story. Her memoir is the basis for the film, “An Educaton”
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2009/jun/07/lynn-barber-virginity-relationships

    I LOVE THESE MOVIE POSTS!!!

  2. Great recap of two really great movies. I just saw An Education as well and it brought up so many things about the difficult choices a young woman like Jenny was expected to make at such a young age (even without David in the picture, the underlying idea that it was get married or go to Oxford and have no choices anyway was strong throughout). I do have to make a small correction: Sally Hawkins played David’s wife, not Poppy Montgomery (Hawkins plays a character named Poppy in “Happy-Go-Lucky,” another really great movie about a female protagonist; I think she won a Golden Globe for it last year).

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