There are so many reasons to hate Oscar season - the intensely patronising time of year when studios clump all of their prestige-style movie into an increasingly small number of weeks just prior to New Year's Eve - but the one that is especially annoying to me right now is the way that the distributors insist on holding onto movies that premiered way early in the year, refusing to release them at a time when they're actually still fresh and new, but rather letting them sit and gather hype along with dust, until I'm frankly tired of a movie that hasn't even been released yet.

Case in point: the first time I heard great things about An Education was nine months ago, during which time it went from being "a little movie that's actually worthy of its Sundance awards" to "a surefire contender for some Oscar nominations" all the way to "a brilliant film anchored by the great breakthrough performance of modern times". Let's call it hype backlash, but now that I've actually laid eyes on the thing, I am hugely unimpressed: with the movie itself, a standard-issue coming-of-age story done well enough and without distinction, and with Carey Mulligan in the lead role, giving the kind of perfectly good performance that allows the movie to function but not radiating off the screen like an angel from God, or any such nonsense. Perhaps if it hadn't been drummed into my head all year that she was going to blow my socks off and reveal herself to be a major new talent, I'd have been able to really desperately love her performance and the movie containing it, instead of feeling like it's a decent stab at a well-worn trope, the kind of movie that I'll probably completely forget that I ever saw by this time next year. Damn you, hype. God damn you to hell.

At any rate, the education mentioned in the title cuts two ways, one literal and one more metaphorical. In Twickenham in 1961, there's this 16-year-old girl, Jenny (Mulligan), who is studying at a high-level girls' school for her A-levels, in the hopes of getting into Oxford, a plan endorsed by her blustery, overbearing father Jack (Alfred Molina) and at least tacitly agreed to by her sharp but typically silent mother Majorie (Cara Seymour). Jenny is not terribly impressed by anything in her life, finding it all very boring and beneath a girl of her level of education and refinement. So it's like a bolt of lightning when she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a man of indeterminate age, but plainly a great deal older than herself, who has exactly all of the things that Jenny wants out of life: he knows art and music, he loves Paris, he enjoys every moment, doing whatever pleases him. Jenny quickly moves into the tight circle that David has with his friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike), re-fashioning herself as quite the proto-swinging Bohemian in the process. Meanwhile, every single person in the audience has spotted David as Absolutely Bad News from his first scene, and is awaiting the moment that Jenny finally gets her other education, the one that informs her why a sensible young girl with a bright future doesn't take up with pervy thirty-something men who plainly get their money from sub-licit sources.

I've been sitting here for a while, trying to figure out why I'm not head over heels for the movie, and I'm pretty sure the reason is that it doesn't say anything in particular or do much of anything. The screenplay (adapted and fictionalised from Lynn Barber's memoir) finds writer Nick Hornby swapping his usual man-child protagonist for a snotty, precocious young woman, but its otherwise characteristic of some of his regular habits, both good and bad. So on the one hand, we have a fairly well-sketched portrait of Jenny, who chafes under authority and likes to question the status quo and enjoys nice things and will uneasily sacrifice her morals to get those things, and on the other hand, she's not a terribly interesting person. By which I mean, there's nothing inherently interesting about what happens to her and what she learns about life (which is all crammed into five minutes at the end anyway), and the nugget of the story - "a supercilious girl realises that her priorities are wrong" - is a bit shallow and obvious. Only the garish specifics of what happens make Jenny's story at all distinctive and worth the telling, and the film eschews melodrama far too eagerly to make use of that garishness.

It's also the case that the story undoes itself: the whole point from word one is obviously that Jenny must learn that loving the jet-setting life is a superficial way to be in the world, and yet Hornby certainly does make that jet-setting life seem awfully appealing, while emphasising all the many ways that life really does suck: her dad is domineering, her headmistress is racist, her teacher is lonely and depressed. The message thus comes across in a muddle: "Having fun is fun, but you'll feel better about yourself if you don't".

Not helping matters at all is director Lone Scherfig, a Danish filmmaker with ties to the Dogme movement, which is the nastiest insult I can think to throw at a person. I haven't actually seen her Dogme film, Italian for Beginners, but I have seen her follow-up Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, and I found it to suffer from a certain blandness of execution typical of Dogme. An Education comes from much the same place: every conversation is shot the exact same way, and when in doubt, Scherfig runs screaming for the nearest medium shot she can get her hands on. It is a supremely boring movie to look at (the fact that the undistinguished cinematography by the undistinguished John de Borman won an award at Sundance is psychotic), which I guess is appropriate, given how often Jenny complains about her life being boring, but there are better ways of showcasing that.

I should probably say something nice to justify the Left-Aligned Poster of Recommendation: but you can get that from all the smitten reviews that spend two paragraphs describing how brilliant Carey Mulligan is (like I said, she does what she has to just fine, but I wasn't shocked and awed; nor would I hesitate to say that Rosamund Pike, giving a silly and tremendously sad performance as a woman who knows that she has to be dumb to keep the men in her world happy, is the actual standout in this cast). Still, this reads like a terribly negative review, so I should say something: it's a sharply-etched character study, it casually but very effectively captures the feeling of London just seconds before the Swinging Age began, and the whole cast is strong and full of faces that it's always nice to see in a movie. If I disliked it, it was only because I'm pre-emptively getting pissed off by its Best Picture nomination.