Therapeutic Movie Review

By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D. MFT

An Education


See our online course, Cinema Therapy by Birgit Wolz, Ph.D.


Director: Lone Scherfig
Producers: Finola Dwyer, Amanda Posey
Screenwriter: Nick Hornby
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Olivia Williams, Emma Thompson, Cara Seymour, Matthew Beard, Sally Hawkins
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2009


An Education plays in 1961 and is based on an autobiographical memoir of the same title written by the British journalist Lynn Barber. Jenny Miller lives in the red-brick-drab London suburb of Twickenham. She is a dutiful 16-year-old student and a passionate consumer of modern novels and French pop records. The teenager is an inquisitive, smart, and beautiful girl, bound for Oxford. But she feels stifled by her starchy private school and her anxious, protective parents.

Following a youth orchestra rehearsal, Jenny meets charming and handsome 35-year-old David Goldman. He sees her standing at a bus stop in the rain, holding a cello case, and offers the girl a lift in his sports car. Jenny responds to his smooth demeanor after some hesitation. He engages her in conversation about the British composer Edward Elgar. David seems quite harmless to her. He is Jewish and fluent in a language of style and culture that she is only beginning to learn. A couple of days later, he “happens” to run into her again, she becomes a target of his sophisticated seduction, and they strike up a relationship.

Jenny’s proper, traditional middle-class parents, Jack and Marjorie, generate love in their home and are bursting with pride that their daughter won a scholarship to Oxford. When she springs David on them, the Millers initially respond in a protective fashion, but they are very naive. Like Jenny they, rather surprisingly, become smitten with David. In particular her conservative and unworldly father believes that David offers an opportunity for Jenny’s social advancement because Mr. Goldman is good-looking, well dressed, well spoken, and very polite. David tells the parents that he is impressed by their daughter’s mind and enjoys sharing his advantages. Because they are so proud of her and he offers implicit guarantees of her safety, they believe a wealthy older man would be interested for purely platonic motives.

David is all that Jenny wants at the time because he opens a door she eagerly wants to enter. Plying her with champagne, broadly cultured, a crack conversationalist possessed of mysterious reserves of cash and no apparent job, he adds one delight after another into Jenny’s life: from the imported cigarettes that she self-importantly puffs at school to the pair of dashing friends. On double dates with his business partner Danny and Danny’s vapid mistress, Helen, he takes the teenager to art auctions, classical concerts, plays, fine restaurants, and nightclubs. When Jenny shares her school knowledge with them, Helen predicts a boring future for her.

David listens intently to what she has to say and does not demand her virginity yet as payment of all the good times and compliments. In airy, high-minded talk they chat about the great world while the boys at school have nothing to say.

After a while, Jenny finds out that David and his partner steal art pieces from houses for sale. He also makes money by moving black families into flats near elderly women who are afraid of them, so he can buy the flats cheap. On discovering this, Jenny is horrified and threatens to leave the relationship, but she finds her new life so enthralling that she looks past the darker side.

Because Paris embodies Jenny’s wildest dreams, David charms and coaxes her protective parents into allowing him to take her to the capital of France. They think that their daughter will be safe with him for a weekend in Paris, because he has an “aunt” who lives there and will be her chaperone.

At some point, it becomes clear to Jenny that David wants to sleep with her if he can, but by now she is open to it. What she seems to crave is not primarily sex – though she schedules the loss of her virginity for her 17th birthday in Paris – but an ideal of sexiness, a world that is the opposite of the little life in England she loathes. David is taking advantage of her innocence, while she is, at first unwittingly and then more brazenly, using him to find her way to that world, which she identifies especially with France.

With her friends, Jenny makes no secret of her relationship. She becomes the talk of her school, attracting the concern of a sad, kind young teacher, Miss Stubbs, and the fierce disapproval of the starchy headmistress, Ms. Walters. The fact that David’s being Jewish mortifies Ms. Walters is just a bonus for Jenny.

After seeing Jenny dance and flirt with Danny, David becomes jealous and hastily proposes to her. Mr. Miller agrees to the engagement, and Jenny drops out of school without taking her final courses.

While searching for cigarettes in David’s glove compartment, Jenny finds a stack of letters addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. David Goldman.” She is shocked and demands that he tell her parents that he is already married so she won’t have to do it herself, but instead he drives off. The whole family is devastated, but soon Jenny remembers her ambition before she met David. Now she is determined to go to college.

Because Ms. Walters refuses to allow her to finish her final year of school, Jenny visits Miss Stubbs at home. She helps the girl to study and pass her A-levels. Although Jenny struggles because she is not used to studying hard any more, she succeeds and gets accepted to study English at Oxford.

The final scene shows her riding her bike on the streets of Oxford with a new boyfriend. Jenny narrates in the background: “So, I went to read English books, and did my best to avoid the insipid fate that Helen had predicted for me. I probably looked as wide-eyed, fresh, and artless as any other student. But I wasn’t. One of the boys I went out with, and they really were boys, once asked me to go to Paris with him. And I told him I’d love to, I was dying to see Paris … as if I’d never been.” In hindsight, Jenny considers her time with David a valuable experience for her.

Cinema Alchemy

I had seen Ellen, who was in her mid twenties, for several months to help her improve self-confidence in her career as well as her self-doubts about her capacity to create and maintain a romantic relationship. Her work had progressed well when she came to one of our sessions very excited. An Education had struck a cord for her when she had watched it the day before.

I encouraged Ellen to tell me more about her response to the movie. After some hesitation, she acknowledged that her heart beat strongly and she felt shame when she remembered some of the scenes about Jenny’s adventures with David. Upon further probing, Ellen told me that these scenes reminded her of her first relationship, when she was 17 years old: “I secretly had an affair with Eric for a year. He was married, had children, and was twice my age at the time. I delayed going to college because he was all I could think about. Then this relationship ended badly when his wife found out about it.” I was surprised hearing about Eric for the first time in this context. Because Ellen was afraid of her parents’ reaction, embarrassed about the age difference, and didn’t want to get him into legal trouble, she had never told anybody about this relationship. In fact, she said that she had forgotten about it. Watching the movie brought her memories back and gave her the courage to tell me about her secret.

This opened the door to our subsequent work during which Ellen started to understand that her shame and self-criticism about her relationship with an older married man had undermined her confidence as a woman in romantic relationships. Over time, she was able to let go of her self-doubts and her confidence grew. My client reframed her experience saying: “This helps me to look at my first relationship from a different angle. I think that my relationship with Eric entirely cured my craving for sophistication. Now I want, like Jenny, nothing more than to meet a kind and decent man. I have a feeling that I will meet this person soon.”

Theoretical Contemplation

Talking about An Education served as a catalyst for Ellen’s self-exploration. Her emotional and physical response (increased heartbeat) to certain scenes in the movie indicated that preconscious material was starting to surface. After watching Jenny, my client did not feel as isolated any more with her own, previously forgotten experience. Our subsequent exploration allowed her to look at her first relationship without self-criticism.

Movies connect the clients’ world to the film’s characters and plots – furnishing role models, providing inspiration and hope, and offering creative solutions to problems. They assure them that they are not alone and that others have experienced similar problems and triumphed. Therefore clients often experience movie characters like a support group. Going back and forth between their inner experiences and observing the movie characters can help them overcome issues around guilt and shame.

Guiding Question for Working with Clients

  • Do you remember your feelings and sensations, or whether your breathing or heartbeat changed throughout the movie? In all likelihood, what affects you in the film is similar to whatever influences you in your life.
  • Did you identify with one or several characters?
  • Notice what you liked and what you did not like or even hated about the movie. Which characters or actions seemed especially attractive or unattractive to you?
  • Notice whether any aspect of the film was especially hard to watch. Could this be related to something that you might have repressed?

Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT has a private practice in Oakland. She facilitates Cinema Alchemy workshops. She also teaches the therapeutic use of movies to mental health practitioners and graduate students. Her book “E-Motion Picture Magic: A Movie Lover’s Guide to Healing and Transformation” guides the reader through the basic principles of Cinema Therapy. Her continuing education online courses are also offered as Cinema Therapy certificate programs: 37 CE Credit Hours and 14 CE Credit Hours
. Birgit can be reached at (510) 919-6943 or Informational Web site:

Posted by permission, © Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT

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