In An Education, 16-year-old British schoolgirl Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is too smart for her own good. She is beginning to get a whiff of the boring life that is being plotted out for her by her parents and her four-eyed, unmarried, marmish teachers, and she doesn’t like it.

Normally, Jenny is a parents’ dream, a bright shiny penny of a girl who swoons for classical music and literature, even as she tolerates mum Marjorie (Cara Seymour) and dad Jack’s (Alfred Molina) hopelessly square, limited imaginations.

From Jenny’s point of view, which defines this wonderful, rueful, if a bit woolly-around-the-edges film, true knowledge is gained outside the classroom. And a better teacher seems to come along in the form of the debonair, still boyish David (Peter Sarsgaard), who one day offers a rain-soaked Jenny a ride in his sports car and gradually insinuates himself into her and her parents’ lives. The things that she experiences through this older, wiser lover — art auctions, pastel-paper French cigarettes, jaunts to the race track, trips to Paris — come to define Jenny’s parallel education in the school of life.

Jenny’s father Jack allows himself to be talked into weekend trips for his daughter which are, in fact, romantic rendezvous with David. And on these jaunts, David’s two best buddies are along for the ride. There is the gorgeous, dim Helen (Rosamund Pike), a kind of fantasy shampoo commercial idea of what the ideal 1961 woman should be: blonde, stylish, quiet. And there is David’s smart-aleck, handsome cohort Danny (Dominic Cooper), who steals a good portion of the film’s sexual charisma when he performs a hip-swiveling, eyes-locked dance with Jenny. David and his friends open up an exciting life to Jenny, more like what she’s been reading about in her existentialist novels and seeing in French cinema than the sad reality of her parents’ or teachers’ lives.

And since this is a coming-of-age film, Jenny is, of course, also introduced to sex. But because its sources are so strong — a memoir by journalist Lynn Barber adapted by the always-insightful Nick Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity) and directed by the savvy Lone Scherfig — the way Jenny goes about losing her virginity is treated in a way not often found on film screens. Jenny has decided that she will lose her virginity on the night of her 17th birthday, and An Education offers the thrilling sight of a smart young woman in charge of her own sexuality. And having sex doesn’t degrade and diminish Jenny as we tend to assume it would in an age-unbalanced relationship like this one. It is just part of her path to knowledge.

Coming-of-age stories about boys have often sent them on quests, road trips, and other self-actualized paths toward nookie. Not so films for women. Jenny may blindly walk into a romantic disaster bigger than the Holland Tunnel, but she sets the terms for her own deflowering in a way that subverts every movie cliché about weak-willed, easily-led virgins. Jenny is a sublime, and sublimely liberating female character who has her frailties and blind spots, but whose innate sophistication, self-possession, and desire to assert control over her destiny will feel true and liberating for female audience members who have had to make do with victims, mealy-mouthed husband-hunters, male helpmates, and dripping wet blankets.

Danish filmmaker Scherfig (Italian for Beginners), does some myth-busting of her own in An Education. She dispels the notion that might arise watching current Danish cinema (Bronson, Antichrist) that Denmark is a country of crazy-eyed, shock-fiends. With this artfully understated drama, Scherfig offers a convincing portrait of the contradictory, limited options available to women, even smart, sophisticated ones like Jenny, just shy of the repressed ’50s but too young to yet reap the rewards of the ’60s.

Newcomer Carey Mulligan has been generating major buzz for her turn in An Education, but the stills from the film running in magazines and on blogs don’t do her justice. She is the definition of a film actress: someone whose features truly come alive under the camera’s watchful glare. Utterly beguiling with her moon-glow skin and lively features, she is a cross between Juliette Lewis during her ingenue phase and the preternaturally sexy screen presence of great French actresses like Anna Karina and Jeanne Moreau. Mulligan’s face — in keeping with the film’s theme of a girl on the cusp — moves from child-like to sexy and knowing with a mercurial intensity. It is a fascinating journey to watch.