There haven’t been many good nostalgic films about university life over the past few years. The closest we’ve ever got is with High School Musical, where people are so happy and carefree it can’t possibly be a genuine high school. It’s quite surprising when you consider how easy it is evoke that sense of nostalgia in a university setting, considering that many graduates refer to it as “the best years of my life.”
Liberal Arts certainly knows how to play on that nostalgia. I evokes every possible romantic notion of university life, which is why it will resonate powerfully with many people. It’s a film that knows all too well that if we did return to university after graduating many years previous, we would yearn for the days we walked through the autumn leaves, carrying a coffee in one hand and a selection of books tucked under the other. Indeed just like university life, Liberal Arts is for the most part very light and easy going, but at the same time has interactions and relationships that make it rather consuming.
Jesse (Josh Radnor) is a 35-year-old college administrator, hanging onto his past academia by holding one of its least desirable jobs. He basically has to turn people away at the gate for a living. Then one of his undergraduate professors Peter (Richard Jenkins) invites him to a retirement party back at his alma mater, Kenyon College in Ohio. Jesse happily goes along, and when he gets there, desperately doesn’t want to leave again.
Josh Radnor (who writes and directs the film) is in his element as the jaded Jesse. Setting the story in his real life alma mater in Ohio, it is like he’s reminiscing about his younger life. He wonders around the campus filled with intellectual curiosity; it’s like he hasn’t changed a bit. It’s Elizabeth Olsen as the perky student Zibby who is the real winner here though. She’s wise and very believable. Throw that in with her rather subtle attractiveness, and she’s a bookish, shy guy’s dream girl.
It’s the central love story between Radnor and Olsen that makes the film sparkle. They are basically two old souls finding each other in one brief unlikely moment. Radnor also does a good job in casting the supporting roles with more experienced actors. Richard Jenkins is as always reliably good as Jesse’s old professor Peter Hoberg. Allison Janney also stars as a strong, highly sexed university professor, a role she clearly revels in. Zac Efron even makes a surprisingly funny cameo, no doubt playing on the irony of his High School Musical fame.
Even though Radnor does keep things feeling relatively fresh, he does keep the narrative and direction in check. Even though the indy romantic comedies are leaning further towards quirkier narratives, Radnor keeps the story in the mainstream. And even though this was perhaps an attempt to show his directing flare, he doesn’t really do anything particularly memorable. Liberal Arts does have one of the smallest production budgets out this year’s releases (just over $100,000), but it is perhaps a missed opportunity for Radnor to show what he’s made of. When it comes to the script however, Radnor rarely falters by keeping in smart even during the film’s more romantic moments.
In the end though Liberal Arts isn’t really about the story of 35-year-old Jesse falling in love with 19-year-old Zibby. It’s more about Jesse falling back in love with the idea of intellectual youth. Zibby likes to have idealistic conversation about ideas. For her this is common, while Jesse has been looking for it ever since he left Ohio. Even the retiring professor Peter doesn’t want to leave university life, after finding comfort in being seen as a mentor by his students.
Apart from making the audience reminisce about their more enjoyable youth, it also highlights a rather interesting irony. As adults we crave to go back to university when life was more idealised, while students like Zibby crave to be adult and go out into the real world. Radnor does well to strike a balance between Jesse’s trip back in time, and Zibby’s knowledge that the big wide world is waiting for her. While at times Liberal Arts does seem a little too self conscious, it makes up for it by having a big brain and a big heart.
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