STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Another girl and her boyfriend are the subject of the new movie "An Education." In this case, the boyfriend is 20 years older. Here's film critic Kenneth Turan.

KENNETH TURAN: "An Education" is an exceptional look at a young girl's journey from innocence to experience, and actress Carey Mulligan is the film's irreplaceable centerpiece.

It's London in 1961, and 16-year-old Jenny gets caught in a rainstorm that launches her into a relationship with David, a man 20 years her senior. He pulls up in a car as she walks down the street lugging her cello.

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Mr. PETER SARSGAARD (Actor): (As David) Hello. Look, if you had any sense, you wouldn't take a lift from a strange man, but I'm a music lover and I'm worried about your cello. So what I propose is you put it in my car and walk alongside me.

Ms. CAREY MULLIGAN (Actress): (As Jenny): How do I know you won't just drive off with the cello?

Mr. SARSGAARD: (As David) Good point.

TURAN: Resistance is futile. David has an almost uncanny knack for saying the right thing at the right time. He knows instinctively that what teenage Jenny wants most of all is to be treated like the adult she would so like to be.

This plays less troublingly than it sounds, because Jenny is a bright, intelligent young person. Her pure, joyful excitement at being at a supper club with David and his friends makes it impossible not to be on her side, even when the talk turns to fine art.

(Soundbite of movie, "An Education")

Mr. SARSGAARD: (As David) I just have a feeling the pre-Raphaelites are going to take off.

Ms. MULLIGAN: (As Jenny) I love the pre-Raphaelites.

Mr. SARSGAARD: (As David) Do you?

Ms. MULLIGAN: (As Jenny) Yes, of course - Rosetti and Burne-Jones, anyway, not Holman Hunt so much. He's so garish(ph).

Mr. SARSGAARD: (As David) Oh, absolutely. Why don't we all go to the auction together?

Ms. MULLIGAN: (As Jenny) Auction? God, how exciting.

Mr. SARGAARD: (As David) It's Friday morning.

Ms. MULLIGAN: (As Jenny) Friday, oh.

Mr. SARGAARD: (As David) You're busy?

Ms. MULLIGAN: (As Jenny) Yeah.

TURAN: She's busy with school.

Carey Mulligan's ability to completely inhabit the role is the key to "An Education's" success. She's gifted with the ability to make us believe in Jenny as an innocent, Jenny as a person of experience, and all the Jennys in between. This is one of the performances of the year, good enough to make us believe that once in a blue moon, even Hollywood cliches can come true.

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INSKEEP: By which he means the cliche of a star being born. Kenneth Turan reviews movies for MORNING EDITION and the Los Angeles Times.

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INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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