Leaving college isn’t hard. Staying away is the difficulty. Jesse (Josh Radnor) is in admissions for NYU and when his professor (Richard Jenkins) has a retirement dinner, he drops everything (which is very little) and goes out to his alma mater, Kenyon College (unnamed in the film). Once there, it’s “like seeing an ex-girlfriend…the one that got away.” He sees Prof. Fairfield (Allison Janney), the teacher of his best class who he loved but doesn’t remember him. He walks the grounds like he’s in heaven. He also meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a sophomore cutie finding her way through school. They start up a pen-palship and things get a little more serious. When she asks him to come back and see her, he’s faced with a dramatic conflict to resolve.
Liberal Arts (2012), written and directed by Radnor, is an anthem. It’s my anthem. This movie is so far up my alley, it’s tickling my tonsils with every slight movement. A young-ish, would-be sophisticate who has trouble outside fictional stimuli, has a strong (philosophically grounded) moral compass, a ferocious nostalgia for college, and a strong distaste for cultural disintegration around every corner. It rings some bells. I know a couple people that fit the description and it all started in the liberal arts. What has saved us all is masochistic laughter. Liberal Arts is the kind of self-abuse we can all get behind.
Zibby is reading a Twilight facsimile and he poo-poos it out of hand. She challenges him, so he decides to take the afternoon to read it so that he can tell her how bad it is. He’s reading it and his Prof. Fairfield walks by and sees him reading it. “No, I’m…reading it…as a…dare.” An anthem’s purpose is to sing out that you are not alone, there are many like you. Culture snobs of the world unite! We have nothing to lose but our coffee chains! The cover has a line that reads “…the best movie about college I’ve seen since I don’t know what.” It’s the best because it’s the most realistic college movie about people who liked nice things when they were in college.
This is Radnor’s movie, obviously, and he does everything superbly. The plot, dialogue, and characters make me weep with self-aware laughter. Without that connection, it may be less appealing. If you didn’t enjoy college, you aren’t going to be able to understand everything Zibby and Dean (John Magaro), a depressed student, are to Jesse. Then again, even if you haven’t been an astronaut, you can probably still enjoy The Right Stuff (1983). They aren’t all inside jokes, after all. There is plenty of classic comedy moments. And everyone is represented: someone facing retirement, someone facing middle-life, and another who wants to grow up fast.
As for direction, Liberal Arts is an impressive second outing after Happythankyoumoreplease (2010). There is a reliance on more montages than you usually see in a movie, but they are terrifically constructed. The classical music montage conveys the inspiration that comes of discovering great music. The others, just walking around campus with Zibby and Jesse, are simple but show their growing connection. It isn’t clear what the budget was for this indy flick, but it looks as clean and well put together as any mainstream film. This isn’t an experiment, it’s a story. On Blu-Ray, it looks great.
Performances are uniformly great. Olson and Jenkins stand out as requiring actual emotional performances. This is a light comedy with coming-of-age drama with characters who are basically flawless. All they had to do was be likeable. They were incredibly likeable. Allison Janney has a way of saying anything and making it seem funny. And Zac Efron as the loony hippy that falls into Jesse’s life was terrific. I kept thinking, “Is that Zac Efron? It can’t be.”
If you’re like me, you’ll want to buy or borrow this as soon as you can. Such therapy.