The Continuing Deconstruction of the Oscar-Nominated Film
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I found the script for An Education online… you can read it free by downloading the PDF from a site called Media Fire. Just click the download link, it’s safe and it works. It’s an early draft (David is called Alan at this point), and the entire Part 3 (the “third act” in movie-speak) is different. But it’s fun to watch how the first three Parts unfold as you saw on screen.
Other than the Second Plot Point (which is late in the script, at Page 100; movie folk are fussy about their plot points, so it’s no surprise to see the edited version right on the money), you’ll see that the story milestones we’ve identified here are precisely where they are supposed to be, page-count-wise. Which translates to running-time-wise.
We’ve seen the First Plot Point in this story: scene 17 (page 27 of the script), at about the 24-minute mark, when David invites Jenny to attend an art auction on a Friday, either forgetting about or not caring about the fact that she’s still in Prep school.
Not exactly an iceberg or an earthquake, but it’s completely in keeping with the tone and direction of the story. This moment signifies Jenny’s loss of innocence as she puts her Oxford future and family values up for grabs, thus defining her journey going forward.
Everything prior to this moment has been a set-up for it.
Everything that follows is a response to it, contextually-speaking. As a writer, this is what I want you to notice. It’s a subtle Plot Point One, but it’s completely in keeping with the mission of this milestone.
Then we identified the Mid-Point, when Jenny witnesses David’s theft of a presumably valuable painting and calls him on it. He calls her right back, throwing out a you’re-in-or-you’re out ultimatum as he confesses and rationalizes his thieving ways.
Love is blind once again. Stupid, too.
Almost exactly as she did at the First Plot Point, Jenny must choose between losing David and his lifestyle and her return to the straight-and-narrow path of school and her father’s hopes for her.
If this was a garden and he was a snake, David just offered Jenny an apple.
She chooses David.
Of course she chooses David, it’s only the Mid-Point and therefore far too early for her to have learned her lessons, conquered her inner demons (a childlike lust for life) and benefited from the ensuing character arc.
Instead she thrusts herself into Part 3 of this story (notice how the curtain has parted, there’s no more charade on David’s part, at least about his business), heading even further into the darkness that awaits as the girlfriend of a con man.
Things quickly kick into a higher, hotter gear.
In the scene following the Mid-Point Jenny and David share their first real kiss. Nothing sexier than a little larceny among friends.
Then she goes home and shows her father the fake autograph from C.S. Lewis – she knows it’s fake, she watched David sign it – thus making herself more than an observer of the fraud, but the co-conspiring author of it.
Are her motives pure? Of course they aren’t.
But she thinks so. It’s all in the name of love, and her parents are unreasonable bores anyhow. She’s already lost her soul and doesn’t even realize it.
According to the principles of structure, Part 3 is about the hero pro-actively attacking the obstacles that block her quest. She believes her parents are that obstacle – what is more proactive than lying to them? – and that her quest is to break free and disappear into the adventurous, sophisticated (and carcinogenic) lifestyle promised by David and his friends.
Jenny believes her father is the bad guy. The antagonist. But, while he’s no party, we know better.
It’s an interesting twist, in that the hero isn’t pursuing the light – even though she’s talked herself into believing she is – she’s diving headfirst into the deep end of darkness. It is the consequences of those choices that will mark her journey, and become the essence of the story going forward.
Jenny is proactively attacking her desire to escape her old life. Once she chose David with an awareness of his thieving ways, she was no longer a wide-eyed passenger. At that point she began driving her own bus.
Jenny tries to impress her friends with tales of her nightlife, but we can see what she can’t – she’s leaving them behind. Losing them. And when she does, all she’ll have on her team is this band of poseurs, which elicits our empathy because we know what she doesn’t.
This is the writer’s strategy, and it’s brilliant.
We’re not rooting for the character, we’re rooting against her, but in a totally caring, almost parental way (okay, you can rationalize we’re still rooting for her, just not rooting for what she thinks she wants). We can see the oncoming darkness that she can’t, and the drama ensues from wondering how far she’ll sink before waking up to it.
Jenny and David have an inevitable near miss with sex (he actually offers her a banana to get the virginity-related “messy part” out of the way)… he deepens her attraction to him by not forcing the issue (and in doing so he layers on the complexity for us, as well, we aren’t quite sure what he’s after now)…
… she gets called into her Principal’s office and is directly threatened with consequences (expulsion) if she gets in trouble with this older man…
… David’s friend Danny makes a subtle play for her in the guise of protection (that’s the second pinch point, as Danny’s warning is precisely the heart and soul of the conflict here)… Helen continues to expose herself as a window dressing Bimbo along for the ride…
… and we all get a poignant lecture on the nature of life and old school religious prejudice from Emma Thompson in the role of Jenny’s Principle.
After more messy relationship business — including a ring — as David and his lifestyle start to veer off the tracks…
… we finally come to Plot Point Two.
Even if you haven’t guessed it by now, if not specifically then at least in essence, you’re still not all that surprised when it arrives.
And even then –more genius writing from Hornby – it still works. We feel the moment on Jenny’s behalf.
Plot Point Two
While waiting in the car with her parents on their way to a Big Night Out with the showboating, tab-paying David (he’s stepped out to make a call), Jenny opens the glove box for cigarettes.
This action was foreshadowed earlier, at the moment of Jenny’s first hint of something amiss regarding David’s world. The camera (equal to the narrative in a novel) lingered a bit too long on that the first time, always a sure sign of foreshadowing in progress.
Now, however, she finds more than cigarettes.
She finds letters. From David’s wife.
And now, Jenny is very much alone with the consequences of her own naïveté.
Next Up – The resolution of “An Education.”