There are times when you stumble across a certain experience at the right time and place. It can be a book, film, or a personification of the perfect solution or a film. For me, I was in the midst of debating over what to do in my age and time. And this was when Liberal Arts met me. The film addresses an issue we all struggle with: What is “age-appropriate?” The answer is explained through a narrative of a man who romanticizes the past, the frustration of a schoolgirl who is eager to embark on her future and the voice of reason. There is no explicit answer. But it helped me understand that all the wrong times and places could lead to the right time and place.
Jesse Fisher (played by Josh Radnor, who also wrote and directed this piece) is the quintessential romantic, not too divergent from his famous sitcom character, Ted Mosby on How I Met Your Mother. He carries on his day-to-day duties as an admissions officer at a NYC university, a brutally honest task that clearly does not fit the bill of his boyish mind frame. He is invited back to his alma mater, Kenyon College, by Prof. Hoberg (Richard Jenkins) to speak at the latter's retirement dinner. Hoberg introduces Jesse to his friends’ daughter and a current Kenyon sophomore, Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen). And if you’re finding the 16-year age gap hard to digest, Zibby is wise beyond her years (perhaps too wise for her own good) and Jesse is still a schoolboy who never really let go since graduation.
Even after Jesse leaves, they continue to converse in an antiquated manner — handwritten letters — which eventually brings Fisher back to Kenyon to see Zibby. This trip proves to be revelatory for everyone. As Jesse becomes more aware of their age difference, he urges Zibby to enjoy her youth. Jesse declines in being her escape method to a more “advanced” stage, devastating Zibbie but providing her with the propulsion her character needs. He runs into a former romantics professor who, ironically, instructs Jesse to “build an armor around the gooey heart of his.” Hoberg (Jenkins), who has had a difficult time coming to terms with his retirement, finally accepts his new station in life and tells Jesse, “Nobody feels like an adult. It’s the world’s dirty secret.” Dean (John Magaro), a sharp student who, like Jesse in his student years, avidly read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, tosses his postmodernist values and starts to live more hopefully after an attempt at suicide. As for Nat (Zac Efron), well, he acts as the film’s idealist without a grain of reality, albeit with surprisingly, successful comic relief.
The film is not a romance, though it may seem so initially. Rather, it is a tale of the cordial benefits of friendships (or ex-friendships). All the on-screen relationships dole out life lessons that seem too much to handle at first. But each viewer will ultimately take a piece of the film to fit his or her own personal puzzle.
Radnor articulates his cinematic vernacular in insightful ways. In one scene, Jesse is deciding whether or not to go back to Kenyon to meet Zibby, he produces a “when she was ‘x’, I was ‘x + 16’” list of equations on the basis of societal rights and wrongs. There isn’t a single word spoken, but it is quirky and humorous in a Woody Allen manner. Through it all, Radnor’s love of classical music and literature creates a charming undertone that drives the plot forward.
Elizabeth Olsen is the starlet of the film. The woman she becomes at the end of the story is not the product of Jesse’s reluctance to push their relationship further, but of her own understanding of his reluctance. She remains a strong character and as one of the film’s most positive assets. The fresh air that the film brings can also be attributed to Efron’s decision to abandon his boy-next-door persona.
Liberal Arts is an ode to inexperience and life’s inevitabilities as well as a filmic appreciation of the liberal arts. But whether you’re currently getting schooled in the liberal arts or in the reality of the world, it’ll be hard to not have an understanding of what Radnor is trying to do. Just like Radnor’s character in the film leaves Zibbie a copy of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, the writer-director persona also leaves the audience with a copy of that.