There’s a thing called “festival high”, when a movie is seen at a festival and praised instantly for being THE BEST EVER. This is something that festival goers suffer from regularly. When I praise a movie at a festival, I always wonder if the film will have the staying power to remain good in a different setting. Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts is one of those movies that I loved when I saw it earlier this year at the Dallas International Film Festival, and worried about how it would play. Luckily, it plays extremely well in repeat viewings.
Jesse (Radnor) is a college admissions counselor in New York City who feels like his liberal arts degree is going to waste. He loves literature and would rather bury his nose in a book than keep a relationship; his girlfriend leaves him in the opening scene. He gets a phone call from his favorite college professor, Pete Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), who asks him to speak at his retirement party. Glad for the opportunity to return to the college that gave him so many great memories, Jesse accepts.
While there, Jesse meets a energetic college student named Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen). In her big hopeful eyes, Jesse sees the college kid that he used to be, and the two of them become fast friends. Upon Jesse’s departure from the college, Zibby burns him a CD of the classical music that she learned to love in a music appreciation class and asks him to send her a handwritten letter. In an age of e-mail and social networking, the two of them strike up an 18th century long distance romance.
After a few months of this, Zibby asks Jesse to visit her again at school. When he returns, he realizes that he must stop living in the past and return to adulthood. A realization that doesn’t come easily at first.
The message of the film is nothing new, but is executed very well. Even though Liberal Arts is primarily about the struggles of Jesse, a thirty-something trying to find validation in his life, it’s also about people in other age groups. Like Professor Hoberg, who is trying to deal with his retirement. In an emotional scene, he goes to the head of his department and begs for his job back. He just doesn’t know how to live without the routine of his work day, and he fears the unknown: retirement.
In the center of it all is Zibby, who desperately wants to grow up too quickly like every teenager or college kid. She is the aggressor in the relationship with Jesse, and she downplays their age difference even though it makes him uncomfortable. She is highly intelligent and well educated, and yet she lacks the life experience to be completely compatible for Jesse.
When Jesse steps back from their budding yet strained relationship, he realizes that he has been spending his time wishing he could go back to his college days instead of enjoying the period in his life right now. That’s the ultimate message of the movie, I felt. There is no better time in your life than RIGHT NOW. It’s a message that is preached often, but followed less so.
Aside from the wonderful acting from everyone involved, Zac Efron’s small but significant role bears mentioning. He plays a man of college student age (it’s unclear whether or not he’s actually a student at the college) who acts as Jesse’s Jiminy Cricket. He appears without warning, and provides existential advice and a lot of comic relief. He is fantastic in this role, one that is somewhat likened to Matthew McConaughey’s character in Dazed and Confused. After seeing Efron in Liberal Arts, it appears his acting potential is sorely untapped.
Allison Janney also plays a phenomenal supporting role as one of Jesse’s former teachers. She can play bitchy and uptight like no other, and the final scene with her is one of the most pivotal for Jesse’s journey.
The Blu-ray looks fantastic – just like watching it on the big screen – but is lacking in extras. A few deleted scenes (including the omission of an entire character played by Michael Weston from Garden State, a short featurette, and the theatrical trailer are all we get. Still, the movie is well worth owning. This is one you’ll want to recommend to others. I know I’ll be lending my copy out many times.
Liberal Arts did not do as well theatrically as I hoped it would, but it still deserves to be widely seen. The film deals with the very different struggles of people during their lifespan, and it offers solace in what might be a time in your life that is seemingly mundane. The message is one of gratitude and contentment, and Josh Radnor is to be commended for conveying that message without being preachy or overly precious. Liberal Arts will remain one of my favorite movies of 2012.
IFC Films presents Liberal Arts. Directed by: Josh Radnor. Starring: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, Zac Efron. Written by: Josh Radnor. Running time: 97 minutes. Rating: PG-13. Released: December 18, 2012. Available at Amazon.com.