London, 1961. A generation of British moms and pops are still stuck in the battered mental postures of postwar austerity, but their kids are restless, longing for something they can't put a name to yet.
The angel-faced English actress Carey Mulligan, in a performance of complete, star-quality confidence, plays 16-year-old Jenny, who's chafing under the pressure from her father (Alfred Molina) to buckle down on her Latin and other studies in order to get into Oxford, something he was never able to do. But Jenny has dreams of her own, although they're a little vague. "I'm going to Paris," she says, outside of her dad's hearing, "and I'm going to smoke and I'm going to wear black."
As it turns out, she's definitely going somewhere. Jenny is standing in the rain at a bus stop one day when a sleek car pulls up and its driver asks if she'd like a ride home. This is David (Peter Sarsgaard). He's somewhere in his mid-thirties, but polite and awfully good-looking. Jenny climbs in.
David is smooth and intelligent, and he takes a solicitous interest in Jenny. He doesn't come on to her; in fact, he presents himself at her home, where he charms her very class-conscious father (David actually did go to Oxford), and receives his permission to take her out — strictly in a mentoring capacity, to provide upscale social instruction. David takes her to classical-music concerts (Jenny's a cellist in her school's student orchestra) and an art auction (where he encourages her to bid on a Pre-Raphaelite painting, for which he pays). He gives her a taste of plush London nightlife, and introduces her to his fabulous friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike). Soon Jenny is wearing more sophisticated clothing and drinking cocktails and smoking David's imported cigarettes. "You have no idea how boring everything was before I met you," she tells him.
Finally, David asks Jenny to come with him to Paris. And her father — blinded by an idealized belief in upper-class rectitude — gives the trip his blessing. Before they go, though, Jenny makes one thing clear to David: "I'm a virgin, and I want to stay that way till I'm 17," she says. Then she turns 17.
The movie has a distinctively modulated tone. None of the period touches are overdone, and the central issue of Jenny and David's gaping age difference is never addressed by any of the characters — as if to do so, in their world, would be boorish. Mulligan is expert beyond her years in portraying Jenny as a teenager, but not a kid. And Sarsgaard is as resourceful as usual in playing David as a man who resists coming into focus. Who is he, anyway? (He says he makes his living in "property, art, this and that.") Eventually Jenny finds out exactly who and what he is, of course. And in the end she understands that the real grownup in their relationship, and the smarter half of it by far, was her all along.
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