Back to College to Move Forward
The main character in Liberal Arts, Jesse, played by Josh Radnor, who also writes and directs his second film, is stuck in life, trapped with a wealth of knowledge with nowhere to put it. He comments early in the film that at his liberal arts college, he majored in English and minored in history, “just to make sure I was fully unemployable.” It’s a running joke about the nature of these kinds of schools, but hits a subtle truism on the realities of post graduation navigation, problems wrestled and conversed over in splendid form here. How do we switch gears and break free?
In this case, it means going back to college and facing one’s past, reliving youth and interacting with it too. Such is the case for Jesse, who temporarily works as an admissions officer in Manhattan. His former professor Peter (Richard Jenkins) calls him one day and invites him to his retirement ceremony at his old University in Ohio. So it’s back to the old stomping grounds for a few days, and it’s there he meets 19-year-old Zibby (A wonderful Elizabeth Olsen) at a friendly brunch, the daughter of Peter’s friends and an undergrad at the same school. There is instant chemistry, a bond formed.
At first, the attraction is mostly common similarities, memories about teachers, classes, campus life. They roam around the grounds (filmed at Kenyon College), pausing in grass fields, church steps, and the theater stage, chatting, reflecting. Fate finds them again the night before he leaves, after Jesse encounters Nat (Zac Efron), a spaced out guru who nudges him to attend the party where Zibby happens to be. He heads back to New York with nostalgia and a new pen pal, because Zibby wants to keep in touch the old-fashioned way.
This is where the film comes to colorful life. Their correspondence is filtered through montage, narrating their letters in strong vocabulary, articulating more about their lives and loves. One of these is their adoration of classical music, in which Jesse details his new perspective of New York with Massenet’s “Meditation” flowing through his ear buds. Jesse is now thirty-something but his heart has never left college, a time and place where anything in his life felt possible, which now, as he preaches to Zibby, was just a false realization. Their correspondence grows deeper, and so do their feelings towards each other.
These letters don’t come off as pretentious but reveal the labors of their education, which appropriately is a point of reflection and critical analysis. How do we balance our lives between reading about how to live them and actually living them? When do we look at these tools of enrichment as limits to our capabilities, as partial barriers of interaction? Radnor doesn’t necessarily answer these questions but his posing them is the first step in his own transitioning process.
He returns a few months later upon Zibby’s request, making the conscious leap from friendship to an unidentified, potentially deeper relationship. Radnor plays this role with care and fragility, and very subdued, well aware of the ethical implications of advancing to the next stage with someone well younger than himself. His counterpart in Olsen plays on this indecision, bright, committed, and willing to defy societal age mores, she enlivens their chemistry.
Though it becomes crucial in this relationship, age becomes a shared theme among others in this film, a mindset that tends to dictate how we perceive who we are. Amongst this moral indecision, Jesse has encounters with a former romantic writers professor (Allison Janey) who bluntly assesses his life after some odd intimacy. He also finds Peter remorseful about retirement, a man still with the energy to educate, a 19 year-old in an old man’s body, which Peter claims never leaves you. For Jesse, this is an awakening. In his mid-thirties, he has predicated his current standing as a long buffer zone between teen age and old age, jealous of Zibby’s college naiveté, of his professor’s jobs, only to find that both realms are unhappy, or just not satisfied.
There is a scene near the end that fades from the vegetated University to the under-construction skyscrapers of Manhattan. Like Jesse’s life, rebuilding is happening, transitioning is occurring, and making the conscious leap from the quad to the bumpy road of adulthood is a transformative, necessary one.
Another subplot within the transition constellation revolves around Dean (John Magaro), a cerebral, social pariah who experienced a manic episode a year before. He is on the brink, always reading to block out his glazed-over existence that feels such because of his required medication. Jesse compassionately befriends him, mostly because of their affinity for the same book, but this becomes an enriching relationship. I was grateful for it, as I was for a few other scenes with Nat, whose personal philosophy cuts through his dopey character. “Life is good,” he emphatically expresses. Jesse, like everyone else, just has to live it.