Students at a private school in England in the 1960’s are shown going to class, orchestra practice and stopping for tea after school at a local café. Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a 16 year old cello player, and is in the youth orchestra solely to look good on her application to Oxford. After practice, it begins to rain, and she stands at the bus stop, getting soaked. A car pulls up, and the driver rolls down the window. He introduces himself as David (Peter Sarsgaard), and a fellow cello-lover, and offers to give her cello a ride in his car, since she probably wouldn’t ride with a stranger. Jenny walks alongside the car, and they chat, until she finally asks him if she can get in the car out of the rain. He drives her home, and he leaves.
At home, she sings along to a French record and dreams of going to Paris, when she should be studying. A schoolmate, Graham, comes for tea one afternoon, and her dad (Alfred Molina) grills him on his plans for university and the future. When Graham says he might take a year off and travel, her father goes nuts and rants at him.
As the family leaves for Jenny’s orchestra concert, they find a big basket of flowers have been delivered. The card says they are to Jenny, and her father can’t believe someone would spend that much money on flowers. They are from David, wishing her good luck at the concert.
A few days later, Jenny and her 2 friends are stopping at the café after school when she sees David. She goes to talk to him and he invites her to a concert and a late supper on Friday. She’d loved to go but doesn’t think her father will let her. When he arrives on Friday to pick her up he wins over the parents with pleasant chit chat and flattery. Jenny is allowed to go to both the concert and dinner. She is pleased that David is so clever.
At the concert, Jenny is introduced to David’s friends: Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike). They are older and very sophisticated, and Jenny looks somewhat out of place in her schoolgirl clothes. After the concert, they eat at a fancy supper club, with a live band and singer. Jenny is thrilled to be part of such sophistication, smoking and drinking, and eating fine food. Danny and David mention “stats” but quickly change the subject when Jenny wants an explanation. Danny mentions that he will be bidding on an original piece of art at an auction Friday morning, and invites Jenny. She says she’ll go, even though it means skipping school.
Her girlfriends at school want to know all about her sophisticated “man-friend”. They see him in his sports car and are envious. Jenny gets a 52 on a Latin translation test, the lowest grade she’s ever had. When her mom suggests a tutor, her dad goes nuts, ranting about costs. The next day, Jenny leaves school for the auction; afterwards they go to Danny’s flat for drinks. They plan a weekend in the country, at Oxford, and Jenny is excited to see the school but realizes that there is no way her parents will consent. David bets her that he can persuade them…and he does.
When they prepare to leave for the weekend, Helen does Jenny’s hair and make-up, and gives her some more sophisticated clothes. She also gives her a negligee to wear. Jenny tells her that she hasn’t slept with David, and won’t, until her 17th birthday. Once there, they eat out and have a great time. Jenny and David go to bed, and she tells him she won’t sleep with him. David says it’s ok, but “wants a peek” and Jenny drops her negligee. David looks, and then puts it back on her. They cuddle and go to sleep.
The next day, while driving, Danny mentions that there is a house for sale that he wants to look at. The two guys go in and Helen stays in the car. Jenny tries to go in but they won’t let her. Helen explains that they steal things from houses. As they exit, they tell her to quickly get in the car, as they have just stolen a valuable framed map. Jenny is silent the whole way home, and leaves angry and disillusioned, refusing a ride. David catches up to her and explains that the good life is expensive. He explains that the “stats” she heard him talking about are old English ladies who are afraid of black people. They find properties, move blacks in the building, and then when the scared old ladies put their property up for sale, they snag it below value. He keeps talking and charms her, and then Jenny isn’t angry anymore.
David has planned a trip to Paris for Jenny’s 17th birthday, and thinks he can persuade her parents to let her go. He does, and she shares the news with her friends. Her school teacher (Olivia Williams) warns her that she is throwing away her life. The headmistress of the school (Emma Thompson) tells her that if she gets pregnant or hears any more of the affair, she will be kicked out of school.
As planned, Jenny and David leave for Paris. He is late from work so they stay at an airport hotel for the night, and will fly out the next morning. They decide to wait until Paris to sleep together.
The next day they arrive in Paris, and spend the day sightseeing, eating, taking pictures and Jenny is thrilled. They end the day with a cheese and wine picnic sitting at sunset, overlooking the Seine. At the hotel the next morning, Jenny is amazed that something so quick as sex could inspire all the love songs and stories that have been written.
Back at school, her teacher again pleads with her to finish school, and go to Oxford, no matter what happens with her boyfriend. She counsels Jenny to accomplish things for herself, especially since she is such a smart girl.
David proposes and Jenny accepts and leaves school without taking her final exams.
David arranges a fancy dinner out with her parents to celebrate, and while getting gas, Jenny finds mail addressed to “Mr. and Mrs.” in his glove compartment. She demands he turns the car around, and goes home. She is furious and tells him he must go face her parents with her. He asks for a minute to himself and says he will come in. While inside waiting, the family hears the car drive off. Her parents are sad for her, and also feel partly responsible as they were all duped by David.
Jenny walks to his house to see it, and before she can decide to ring the bell or not, a young woman and her son come outside. She realizes why Jenny is there, and tells her that David has done this before and has even gotten girls pregnant. She looks sad for both her and Jenny.
The head mistress refuses to let Jenny repeat the senior year. So, she goes to her teacher’s apartment and talks to her and asks her to help. Jenny spends the year studying on her own, and with the teacher’s help. She takes her exams, and gets a letter in the mail that Oxford has accepted her.
We see Jenny at Oxford going to class, and spending time with other students. She says she is dating a boy who wants to take her to Paris and she acts as if she’d never been before…and looks forward to the trip.
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