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What’s wrong with this picture? Mulligan in An Education.

Young Girl

By Shawn Stone

An Education

Directed by Lone Scherfig

A precisely made coming-of-age story, adapted by Nick Hornby from a memoir by Lynn Barber and directed by the Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig, An Education is smart, sweet and heartbreaking.

Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a 16-year-old schoolgirl on her way home from cello practice when 30-something David (Peter Sarsgaard) offers her a ride in his fancy-shmancy sports car. We know this is trouble. Jenny knows this is trouble. But David is a charmer, and he endears himself to her strict parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) with pretty lies, and opens up a world of concerts and nightclubs to Jenny, the smartest, hippest girl in her class—and thus the one most susceptible to his tricks.

David is a predator, but he’s a passive-aggressive one who operates strictly on charm and money. We learn early on that, left to his own devices, he’s risk-averse; David defers to his “business” partner Danny (Dominic Cooper, sharp as a tack) when they’re working one of their “deals,” even allowing Danny to be the tough guy with Jenny. It’s disconcerting, disorienting—and no small part of why Jenny is comfortable with David. She must think, at some level, that she can control him.

And this is crucial, because Jenny knows what she’s after, too. Sexually, she’d already professed that she planned to lose her virginity at 17. (Careful David, cognizant of the legal age of consent, doesn’t press the matter.) While she has a lot of what Gene Pitney described in song as the “wide-eyed innocent” in her, she quickly gets wise to David’s other games—the ones he plays to make money.

And these games are sordid, and often criminal. She learns this, but only flinches for a moment. We’re left to puzzle out the balance of her motives, which are divided between her genuine feelings for him and her desperate desire to escape the drudgery of school, the restrictions of home life and the gray uniformity of postwar England.

The place and the time—the early 1960s—are crucial to Jenny’s dilemma. She doesn’t want to end up a middle-class housewife like her mother, but the career paths open to her if she graduates from Oxford aren’t immediately appealing, either. Jenny sees her teacher Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams) as a kind of social wallflower to be pitied and scorned; this is teenage cruelty at its meanest. Less defensible is the school’s headmistress (Emma Thompson), whose starched values and casual anti-Semitism are a kind of mild-mannered horror. When David starts dangling jewelry in front of her and buying her clothes, it’s exhilarating enough to blind her to everything she doesn’t want to know.

Director Scherfig, who came out of the Dogme 95 movement, retains that genre’s attachment to close-ups; she’s always looking for answers in the human face. For this kind of cinema to work, one needs first-rate actors, and everyone in An Education passes this test. Scherfig also makes wonderful use of color, with the pale suburban home and school settings contrasted with the Technicolor glamour of London nightclubs and swanky hotels in exotic places. This underlines a wonderful cliché that applies to the story: All that glitters is not gold.

Horror Show

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

Directed by Lee Daniels

As annoyingly simplistic as it often is harrowing, Precious—and, no, I simply refuse to type the ridiculously long subtitle that suggests more self-importance than the film is worth—is an exercise in passive aggression. Teen Clarice Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) gets kicked out of school when she turns up pregnant for the second time. Her baby’s daddy is her own daddy, and if that’s not bad enough, we are treated to some crude flashbacks involving Dad’s sweaty and bulging belly, a jar of petroleum jelly, jostling bed springs and then (let’s hope you haven’t just eaten), bacon and eggs sizzling stovetop in grease. Making matters worse is the fact that Precious’ mother Mary (Mo’Nique) would just as soon smash her daughter’s head with a frying pan as give her the time of day, enslaving the girl, verbally harassing her and—this time, thankfully, no accompanying photographic subtext—sexually abusing her as well.

Thank God for the love and support of a too-good-to-be-true teacher (Paula Patton), named Blu Rain, whose preferred method of instruction to her ragtag class of dropout girls is “Write! Write!” The part of me that is my own mother, and which I like to keep hidden, couldn’t help but intone “But Precious can’t even read.” And, worse, “How about some marketable skills?” Precious, which is now having its day thanks to Oprah’s imprimatur, pushes the ideal that, with hope and personal support, every child can succeed, no matter how disadvantaged. And Precious most certainly is that.

As if to underscore the emotional trauma she’s had to withstand, Precious is mountainously fat. The effort to speak, at least initially, seems gargantuan, no doubt because nobody has heretofore bothered to listen, but at times, one can’t help but wonder if she’s got anything worth saying after all. This is not due to Sidibe’s performance, which is affecting and at times surprisingly sharp, but more to the filmmakers’ shifting understanding of what and who she is. Victim? Check. Idiot savant? Hardly. Messenger for understanding and humanity? Get back to me next week, after I’ve had some time to mull this over, but I think not. Just when one thinks that Precious might get her life back on track, another horror befalls her.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles had it easy in comparison.

The movie has that unmistakable feel of watching a car wreck, where you know you shouldn’t look but you can’t help yourself. Mary’s terrorizing of her daughter is probably the cruelest depiction of motherhood in recent movies, but it’s steeped in something that we know to be realism, perhaps because we ourselves have said some pretty nasty things to our own flesh and blood. Mo’Nique, generally known for her comedic roles, lets it rip, unafraid of our repulsion. While Daniels fills the screen with images of billboards proclaiming the value of spaying or neutering the animal population (how’s that for subtlety?), Mo’Nique chips away at little pieces of our psyche, so that we can almost empathize with her hatred and jealousy of her own daughter. Certainly, we come away with an understanding that ignorance begets not just more ignorance, but unspeakable tragedy. We’re meant to get the idea that Precious, because she’s motivated and is beginning to realize her self-worth and intelligence, will make a better world not just for herself, but for her two babies; the more cynical among us might wonder instead at what ongoing cost to society, and to what end?

—Laura Leon

Defanged

The Twilight Saga: New Moon

Directed by Chris Weitz

Bella Swan (Kristin Stewart) is almost 18, and Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) is 109. Yet Bella is worried about their age difference—make that aging difference—because Edward is an immortal vampire. Not that there’s much vampiric about him. In New Moon, the sequel to last year’s tween hit Twilight, Bella and Edward are even more inane, despite having spent the summer apart. Bella is so angst-ridden about looking like her grandmother that she can barely enjoy celebrating her birthday with the Cullen coven. Robert is even more tormented about his desire to suck her blood, especially after Bella gets a paper cut at her birthday party, sending a non-Cullen attendee into a feeding frenzy. Bella pleads, repeatedly, there is only one solution: that Robert “turn” her into an undead. This he will not do, and so he departs to Italy, either to find or destroy his soul (due to the brainless script, it’s hard to tell which). Inconsolable, Bella finds consolation with her friend Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner). But wouldn’t you know it—Jacob can’t be her boyfriend, either, because he’s become a werewolf.

What’s a high school senior to do? Mope, mostly, which Stewart does much less convincingly than she did in Twilight. Directed by Chris Weitz, who drained the vitality out of The Golden Compass, New Moon is vapid even in comparison to the silly but lushly picturesque original. What little acting is in evidence seems strained—this is the talented Stewart’s worst performance—and the action occurs as a series of boringly composed vignettes. The plot doesn’t exactly thicken when the wanly family oriented vampires get into territorial disputes with a pack of testosterone-fueled werewolves. For a while, Bella runs with the wolves, because her heartache can be relieved only by the adrenaline rush of reckless behavior. And that includes taunting realistically CGI beasts and a ridiculous Edwardian apparition.

For reportedly commercial reasons, director Catherine Hardwicke, who gave Twilight a preternaturally lush and naturalistic ambience, was replaced with Weitz. The series’ scriptwriter, Melissa Rosenberg, was not replaced, despite the fact that her dribbling dialogue was the worst element in the original—and her dialogue is even more numbingly mundane for the sequel. Even the amazingly versatile Michael Sheen (the main acting attraction in the Underworld saga) as a powerful Italian vampire can’t get the blood pumping in this moribund tale of unholy love on the rebound.

—Ann Morrow


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