It's too much to hope for that the film festival will score another coup like last year's closing-night feature, Slumdog Millionaire, but then again films like Slumdog just don't come along every year. What we do get this year, however, looks tasty indeed.
For opening night, the festival offers Lone Scherfig's (Italian for Beginners) An Education starring Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina and young Brit TV actress Carey Mulligan, who is being hailed as the "new Audrey Hepburn." The film – with a screenplay by novelist Nick Hornby (About a Boy) – is an unusual coming-of-age story. Set in 1961, the film tells the tale of teenage schoolgirl Jenny (Mulligan), who chooses the adventure and glamour of a dubious thirtysomething charmer (Sarsgaard) over an Oxford education. The film's focus is as much on the era in which it takes place – dreary, pre-Beatles, pre-swinging '60s England – as it is about the characters. Indeed, Jenny's desire for color and life in the guise of jazz, champagne and the high life is representative of the mood of the youth of the country at that time.
The film's reviews are little short of stunning. An Education comes to the festival with a glowing 92 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That's something you see very rarely. Nearly all of those reviews wax ecstatic over Mulligan. Roger Ebert writes, "She makes the role luminous when it could have been sad or awkward. She has such lightness and grace, you're pretty sure this is the birth of a star." More generally glowing is Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times: "Invariably funny and inexpressibly moving in the way it looks at a young girl's journey from innocence to experience, An Education does so many things so well, it's difficult to know where to begin when cataloging its virtues."
Closing the festival is a very different kind of coming-of-age story, Lee Daniel's Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. This film is about an overweight, illiterate black girl (newcomer Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe), pregnant with her second child (by her father) and constantly abused by her mother (Mo'Nique), who finds redemption with the help of a teacher (Paula Patton) and a social worker (Mariah Carrey). Strong stuff, but with an apparently triumphantly upbeat ending that's made it a crowd-pleaser at every film festival it has played.
Oscar buzz surrounds Precious. In the Hollywood Reporter Duane Byrge calls the film, "An overwhelming, masterful dramatic competition entrant, this Lee Daniels film may have no bounds in the awards categories." John Anderson in Variety was no less enthusiastic: "Everyone involved deserves credit for creating a movie so dangerous, problematic and ultimately elevating." It just may be that Precious will join the ranks of Oscar-winning – or at least nominated – films that have made their local debut at the festival.