Gareth Negus reviews Liberal Arts.
Liberal Arts is a pleasant middle-youth indie angstfest, which sings the praises of an English degree while gently mocking those who can’t move on from their college years.
Josh Radnor, also the film’s writer and director, plays Jesse, who returns to his alma mater for the retirement of one of his favourite professors (Richard Jenkins). Over the weekend he meets new student Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen); the two strike up a correspondence, which leads to a romance. Jesse is at a point where he’s slightly disappointed with his life – he’s just split up with his girlfriend, and is stuck in an unfulfilling job in university admissions (one senses he would prefer to be an inspirational lecturer). He hides from his disappointments behind books and poetry. Meeting with the professors who inspired him ignites his nostalgia for university, and a desire to relive those years – as he puts it, “The only time in your life when you can say you’re a poet without someone punching you in the face.”
In other words, it’s a period in your life when you’re allowed to be an insufferable pseud. I read English at university, and the film made me ask: bloody hell, was I this bad? Jesse’s letters to Zibby are pretty toe-curling, though I think that’s intentional – he’s actually pretending to be pretentious, if that’s possible, finding a CD of classical music she’s made for him to be miraculously transcendent. (Seriously, he’s got this far in life without hearing Brandenburg Concerto No.3? A guy like this?) He’s a bit of a snob, too, mocking Zibby for reading a Twilight-ish vampire novel.
If Jesse is overly ready to plunge back into the intellectual, and lustful, side of student life (he avoids the heavy drinking, which thankfully makes him look less of a twat than could have been the case) then Zibby is slightly older than her years. There’s the odd touch of pixie dream girl about her, but in the scene between Olsen and Radnor which marks a pivotal point in their relationship, she does feel like a real person.
Both leads are good, but the real acting standouts are Richard Jenkins and Allison Janney as professors who are just as unable to move beyond their university roles as Jesse seems to be. (There’s also an amusing, if clichéd, cameo from Zac Efron as a stoner who dispenses nuggets of Zen-like wisdom from time to time.)
It’s no surprise that this has gone down well at festivals, celebrating as it does the virtues of education for its own sake. It could have been massively annoying, with the lessons Jesse learns being a bit obvious, and Zibby dangerously close to being idealised. Thankfully, Radnor just about manages to avoid falling into teeth-grinding indie mannerisms. He makes a likeable lead, and though Jesse’s journey is not a particularly gripping one, that’s not a huge problem – sometimes life-changing moments do look small from the outside.