Let me begin by saying that Liberal Arts was one of the most underrated films of 2012; so much so, I hadn’t heard of it until I went through a less than tasteful list from a leading film magazine of the year’s best films. This gem, somewhere near the end of the ridiculous list, was an incredible (even destined) find.
Liberal Arts, written and directed by Josh Radnor, a talented and if I may say, rather handsome young man. Radnor also stars in this gorgeously poignant story of a somewhat directionless and bored 35-year-old man who meets and discovers 19-year-old Zebbe (played so naturally well by Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene)). The trick to this deliciously nostalgic film is the fact that it oozes genuine warmth, humour and a general feeling that “everything is ok”.
Liberal Arts opens with the infamous nugget of Ecclesiastes: “He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow” (1:18). In everyday parlance: the one who knows more will be bummed out. It comes from the same school of thought as, “a pessimist is only the person in possession of all the facts”. Of course, depending on your world view, this is debatable. But not for our protagonist Jesse (Radnor), an incredibly intelligent man who, I think, would take great pleasure in mulling over the ingredients of the back of a shampoo bottle if he knew what they meant. His home is filled with countless books, and he mentions that reading has been a passion of his since he can remember. This passion took him to great heights in his college days: he studied Liberal Arts, a course which is designed to provide the student with equipment to analyse, deconstruct and simply question everything. Which, of course, Jesse does. Still mulling over his peak in college (emphasised by his connection to his old college professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins) and the fact that he works as an admissions officer at an unknown university), Jesse cruises back down to Kenyon College, Ohio to visit and attend an event in honour of Prof. Hoberg.
She is a student at the university, and this creates an immediate, beyond chemical, bond between Zebbe and Jesse that really transcends beyond ‘things in common’. She loves literature – so does he. She’s witty – so’s he. And that’s about it. What gravitates the viewer to these two is not just their coincidental attractiveness; it’s Zebbe’s incredibly matured mind that makes us – and Jesse – start to question what age really is. I attempted to create a discussion on the age and the illusion of age with Prime, and how it really is a cultural way for us to determine how long we’ve been alive. In their own discussion of their 16-year age gap (just before this, Jesse comically plays a game of “When I was ___ old, she was ____”) Zebbe notes that she’s incredibly matured or Jesse is stunted. You can decide which of these holds true.
“I think one of the things I loved most about being here was the feeling that anything was possible, just infinite choices ahead of you. You get out of school and anything can happen. And then you do get out, and…life happens, you know? Decisions get made and all those many choices you had in front of you are no longer really there. At a certain point, you just gotta go, ‘Oh, I guess this is how it’s going down’.”
The romantic connection (if that’s what it can be called) that blossoms between these two is but an element of Liberal Arts; the beauty of the film is its supporting cast that do so much more than support Jesse through his journey of growing up and Zebbe’s self-affirmation. I have to give an extra special mention to Zac Efron as the cliché-breaking “dude”, Nat.
Nat provides the majority of the laughs in Liberal Arts, but also the most profound and simplistic philosophy I’ve seen for a while in film. His seemingly “stoner”, “hippie” self proves to be something much deeper, in that he is the voice of reason, compassion and simply, peace. Don’t let his slow speech fool you – Nat is a shining success all on his own. Of course, the idea of Zac Efron playing one of my favourite characters ever in film would admittedly have made me laugh. But give him a watch and see.
Another fantastic element of Liberal Arts is the natural intellectualism it oozes. It is ironic that a film with the theme of nostalgia should make the viewer feel so nostalgic for their own youth. The casual mentioning of Bach, Beethoven, and countless other heavyweights in classical music alongside those of classical literature and books, makes watching Liberal Arts feel like you’ve come away from meeting some fascinating friends at an indie-coffee shop, with intense literary debates abound. No hipsters allowed.
“I feel you man. Lot of information in trees.”
In fact, the sense of belonging I got even whilst watching this film made me surprised at the fact that it’s not based on a novel or at least a memoir, at all. The characters, subject matter, witty humour and pop culture references really made me feel as though I had just finished reading a fantastic book. I’d also like to mention the surprise appearance of a genuine, all-round “good guy”. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a man be good, and inherently good. Making decisions not only based on staying true to himself, but also selfless acts of good. Radnor certainly created a modern though troubled gem of a man (see also Big Fish) in this indie favourite.
“It is strange how we hold on to the pieces of the past while we wait for our futures” — Ally Condie.
• The featuring of Zac Efron may sound like a casting nightmare, but I thoroughly recommend his critics to watch his hilarious and genuine performance;
• Great ending, magnified only by its realism;
• Olsen’s performance here acts only as an omen to her success in the future. I highly suggest you keep a close watch on this marvel of an actress.
• Allison Janney as the underplayed pseudo-villain, sexually voracious professor who used to teach Jesse;
• You have got to look out for what I think may possibly be the most romantic line ever. It’s not cheesy, not too sentimental. It’s straight, direct and honest. I won’t write it here, but here are two words: Rough draft.
• The theme of age really was an issue in Liberal Arts, but I think the point is, it’s all relative. It’s all about individual experience and feeling. There is nothing wrong with a decade or two between you, as long as when everything else is wiped away, you can look at each other and know, feel, that it is the right thing.
An homage to youth and its simplicity, Liberal Arts’ innate realism deals with nostalgia and a journey of self-discovery, all the while cracking smiles along the way. Practically, of course, age is not just a number for some individuals, and is a matter of personal taste and experience. But that’s what age is all about: behaving in a way that reflects your experience and ability to deal with life. An incredibly relevant film for our time, in an age where the overwhelming possibilities of life has us lost and directionless.
“Most of the time when I’m out, I keep thinking I’d be so much happier in bed with a book and that makes me feel not..super cool?”
Liberal Arts is all about timing and the power of taking it easy. The ability to reflect, the film notes, can change the course of a person’s life. So, it’s not all about a sharky “go get ‘em” attitude. Just relax. “Everything is ok.”