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Choose ‘An Education’ Over ‘Valentine’s Day’ At The Theater

If you went and saw the rom-com trainwreck that is "Valentine's Day" this weekend (our film critic Beth Accomando HATED it), and want to get all things Ashton and Hollywood off your mind (or at least Ashton), rush over to Landmark Theaters in Hillcrest to see "An Education."

This British movie from Danish director Lone Scherfig (Scherfig is a woman - which I'm compelled to point out given the scarcity of female directors) is totally charming and understated. I haven't seen "Valentine's Day" (I'd like to promise I won't, but there's always that moment of weakness known as the sneak-never-to-be-mentioned-in-public "On Demand" viewing), but its over-stocked celebrity roster and Garry Marshall-ness seems like the opposite of charm and understatement.

Before I delve a little deeper into the merits of "An Education," let's linger on the superficial for just a moment and compare these two movies by costuming alone.

Jennifer Garner and Ashton Kutcher in "Valentine's Day"

New Line Cinema

Above: Jennifer Garner and Ashton Kutcher in "Valentine's Day"

What the hell is Jennifer Garner wearing? The woman is in her late '30s, yet forced to wear a deadly combo of polka dots, pleated skirt, red fingernails and a ponytail! Her outfit is a Hollywood signifier for sweet, down-to-earth teacher screaming marriage material (but about to be scorned, duped, or cheated on). And is Ashton really wearing pink?

On the other hand, there's this:

Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard in "An Education," currently playing at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas.

Above: Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard in "An Education," currently playing at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas.

Much more fun to look at, no? The hair, the dress, the car, the man! "An Education" is set in 1961, so it has a fashion high point (or at least current "Mad Men"-induced craze) on its side. But this image is chock full of romance and the promise of an evening out on the town, in contrast to an afternoon of humiliation as Ashton Kutcher arrives at your place of employment wearing pink (the flowers are beautiful though).

But "An Education" need not rest on its costuming laurels alone and, truthfully, the protagonist spends as much time in drab school uniforms. It's a coming-of-age story centered around Jenny, played by Carey Mulligan, a clever 16-year-old private school student on her way to Oxford but suddenly derailed by the attentions of an older man, played by Peter Sarsgaard.

Jenny dreams of escaping suburban Twickenham, her conservative school, and risk-averse parents (Alfred Molina nearly steals the show as her father). Mulligan is terrific as Jenny, who's prone to lying on her bedroom floor, singing along to French records, dreaming of Paris.

When David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard) comes along, with his flashy sports car, winning smile, and invitations to symphony recitals, jazz clubs, and trips to Paris, Jenny can't help but be seduced into a world too old for her.

Nick Hornby wrote the screenplay, which is based on a short memoir by Lynn Barber. Hornby has shown great facility with lovable but immature, commitment-phobe male characters ("High Fidelity," "About a Boy") and here proves himself surprisingly sensitive to the emotional life of a 16-year-old girl.

It was refreshing to spend time with a teenage girl not in love with a vampire, not sharp-tongued or precociously verbal, and not passive and neurotic. Jenny's character is drawn with care - she's an acute observer of the adults around her, but still young enough to get them wrong, and brazen enough to run in circles beyond her age and class, but not so studied as to hide her enthusiasm and girlish wonder at the lifestyle.

Mulligan turns in a wonderful performance and, at 24, has been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, adding to the Golden Globes and BAFTA nominations she's received but not won. I can't wait to see what she does next.

If Valentine's Day has left you with a romantic afterglow that you want to burn a little longer, go see "An Education." It is a lovely portrait of youth and the heartache that comes with growing up.

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