Director: Josh Radnor
Cast: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney
Watch Liberal Arts online in the UK: Netflix UK / TalkTalk TV Store / Google Play
“Why should we spend all our time listening to obscure indie bands, right?”
That’s Jesse (Radnor), after Zibby (Olsen) gives him a mix CD of classical music. The line tells you everything you need to know about Liberal Arts, a sweet coming-of-age tale that sees a guy go back to his old college and fall in love with a student. He’s 35. She’s 19. But they both like Beethoven, so it’s ok, right?
Josh Radnor’s second feature as writer, director and actor knows the kind of territory it’s in. This is the kind of film where people make mix tapes for each other. The kind of film where guilt, morality and the transcendent beauty of Mahler are written down in long, flowery letters and sent to each other in the post. But while Liberal Arts treads the line of a kooky, indie romance, it does so with a sentimental streak that keeps it utterly sincere. Jesse’s nostalgic urge to go back to Kenyon College – a timeless place that feels the same, even though everyone is half his age – is clearly founded from Radnor’s own mid-life longing, a feeling echoed by Richard Jenkins’ retiring professor, an old man who is still isn’t ready to leave campus.
As Jesse’s inappropriate crush, Elizabeth Olsen is as charming and fantastic as ever. Her older-woman-in-a-girl’s-body feels closer to Manhattan’s Mariel Hemingway than modern MPDGs, while finding a balance between witty sophistication and emotional naivety. Their romantic entanglement is believable but, crucially, not the sole driving force of the film. Radnor resists any pressure to go down the full coupling route, being sure, instead, to underline the difference that 16 years can make – and, in one spiky scene, the difference 40 years can make, when Jesse collides with his embittered old Romantics professor (a smoking Allison Janney), on whom he had a massive crush.
Jessy and Zibby’s plutonic interaction shapes his gradual maturing, but Olsen makes sure there’s more to her than providing life lessons to a man. Discussing vampire novels in a café (Twilight goes unnamed), the couple trade blows on books and the role of culture in society. Jesse dismisses the phenomenon as unimportant and stupid. Zibby insists that she likes them. “That’s not a good enough reason to read them!” he splutters. She replies, coolly: “You think it’s cool to hate things. And it’s not. It’s boring. Talk about what you love and keep quiet about what you don’t.”
Yes, it’s a bit quirky. There are some quirks in it. People quirk. But with every clichéd piece of over-written dialogue, Radnor’s personal movie feels a little more genuine. With a braver story arc or a sharper script, Liberal Arts could have been a modern classic. It isn’t, but it’s endearing to watch something so open-hearted. Even when Zac Efron turns up in a woolly hat as the local hippy on campus, he plays it for hugs more than laughs.
Liberal Arts is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.