Precocious Kids and "An Education"

What Women Really Think
Oct. 9 2009 2:28 PM

Precocious Kids and "An Education"

Sam, I was not particularly skeeved by the relationship between the 16-year old protagonist of An Education and her older man . I’m still not, even in light of Roman Polanski, but he does make me think a little harder about why I’m not skeeved. The central question, to me, seems to be one of precociousness: Is precociousness always a put on? Or is it possible that some precocious kids, while certainly not as worldly as they seem to be, are as mature as they seem to be?

I think An Education wants us to believe the latter: Jenny, for all of her schooling, is unschooled about many aspects of adult life (sex and culture being the two big ones), but her preternatural self-possession is not just a put on. The girl’s all there. (When Jenny fights with her elders, particularly her teachers, she is simultaneously bratty and asking searing, hard questions. She is never a trifle.) David, the older man, provides her with the life experiences (sex seems to be almost the least of these-the others being Paris, music, night clubs, heartbreak) to match her precocity. An Education argues that a precocious girl who gains life experience becomes, in fact, a woman. I found this, at least in the specific case of the movie, to be persuasive.

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The problem is just that the "life experiences," in this film, come at no great price. Jenny is almost ruined, but she is not. Her path to Oxford took an enriching detour-it was not derailed. And this, well, lucky break allows us to overlook the flaw in Jenny’s precocity: However clever, well read, hard-working, and charming she is, she is also a hideous judge of character. David is a cad.

The movie makes a very simple move to make this flaw, the ultimate proof that Jenny really is a child, seem irrelevant: It makes all the adults having to do with the film, both Jenny’s parents and the audience, equally hideous at judging. Her parents are as taken with David as Jenny is. Jenny's falling for a charming, thieving, cheating liar is not a youthful mistake because it could just as easily have been an adult one. And if the audience is never quite as charmed by him, we are so taken with Jenny, with her intelligence and spunk, that we stop sizing up her mistakes. I think it's a credit to An Education that I wasn't skeeved. It didn't want me to be. But, if this movie were real life, I'd like to think I would be.

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

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