Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is bright, beautiful and on the brink of becoming a student at Oxford University—or at least that’s the future her pushy parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) have envisioned for her. And regardless of some rebellious feelings born of perceived oppression, the teen is following the plan.
Then she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a handsome stranger and professed music lover who offers to give her cello a ride home in his fancy sports car one wet afternoon, so her instrument won’t be ruined in the rain. The unusual introduction to the thirtyish man eventually evolves into a date. Despite their age difference, David gets her father to agree to the proposition by employing his most lavish charm. While Jenny finds the smooth operator’s schmoozing amusing, because he can manipulate others into doing exactly what he wants by making them think it was their own idea, she neglects to recognize the similarities between his methods and the tactics he’s using on her.
Pulled into the wealthy playboy’s world of concerts, nightclubs and expensive pastimes (which include a lot of smoking and drinking), Jenny is completely swept off her feet. Taken under wing by David’s friends Danny and Helen (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike), the pair helps the adolescent play adult by dressing her up in some heavy makeup and costly clothes. Meanwhile David dangles appetizing weekend excursions and trips to Paris in front of her hungry desire for excitement. His enticements effectively coax Jenny along a road leading away from her family, her studies and her ethics. The trail eventually leads to David’s bed.
Watching the stealthy, subtle seduction of this naive child is as discomforting as witnessing a pedophile in action. His suggestion that they just be “romantic” turns into letting him just “take a peek” and finally into the agreement that Jenny will lose her virginity on her upcoming seventeenth birthday. (The audience is privy to these conversations, which include some sexually explicit discussion, along with seeing the girl’s bare back and shoulders when she reveals herself and a few shots of the couple in bed.)
Although Jenny blithely believes she is in control of the situation, viewers with a shred more maturity than she possesses will find they are just waiting for the inevitable disillusionment that always follows any offer “too good to be true.”
When those consequences do come, the production switches into voice-over narration to explain what life lessons Jenny has learned. Unfortunately, the soliloquy smacks of self-justification rather than the expected remorse or recognition of mistakes. From the opening moments of the movie, Jenny’s character appears to feel smarter than those around her—smarter than her parents, her classmates, her teachers, David’s friends and perhaps even David. And as it comes to a close, she still sounds like her “education” has made her superior to her peers. Sadly, that leaves this film with little real wisdom to teach any other floundering youth.