Liberal Arts

Director: Josh Radnor
Starring: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Zac Efron, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, and John Magaro.
Distributor: Icon Films
Runtime: 97 mins. Reviewed in Dec 2012
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: Mild themes, sexual references and coarse language

This movie begins ironically with a quote from Ecclesiastes (1:18), “Increasing the knowledge, increaseth the sorrow”, and tells the story of Jesse Fisher (Josh Radnor), who is a 35-year old Director of Admissions at a New York University. He returns to his old University College in Gambier, Ohio, where he was a student years before, so that he can attend a retirement dinner for his beloved Political Science teacher, Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins) – “the second best teacher he ever had”.

Jesse has developed a fierce passion for language and literature, and back at College, he meets a sophomore, Zibby, (Elizabeth Olsen), who is just 19 years of age. Others he meets are a colourful hippie, Nat (Zac Efron), whom he describes as unusual enough to be an imaginary friend, and a fragile Dean (John Magaro), who can’t handle college life at all and is reaching out tentatively to him for help.

Jesse realizes that Zibby has a love of Arts that matches his own. She opens his life to the joys of classical music, but she likes popular vampire novels, which he despises. With time, however, shared passion for the Arts bonds them together. Zibby is mature beyond her years, and the warmth of the relationship between her and Jesse is affecting. Zibby teaches Jesse some home truths in life that he needed to know, but the more time they spend together the more they both come to realise that the connection between them is strong.

This is a thoughtful movie that targets the age difference between a young student, and an older man in insightful ways. Jesse is thrilled by Zibby, but he realises that she is 16 years younger than he is. The film explores the complexities and consequences of their relationship in a surprisingly effective way, and it has many light comic touches. The flirtation between them seems all too possible, but the problems of being together start to loom over their attraction to each other. Zibby has some growing-up to do, while Jesse has to go back in experience to understand her completely.

Josh Radnor writes, directs and stars in the film. He pays a lot of attention to detail and atmosphere, and provides us with an especially beguiling drama. Jesse is wistful about his old college days, and is ready to absorb as much nostalgia as possible. Zibby’s captivating, youthful enthusiasm revives his nostalgia, and she gives a seductive, spontaneous performance that is wonderful to watch.

Jesse’s attraction to Zibby is the movie’s main moral thrust. She offers herself sexually to him, but he refuses to sleep with her on moral grounds. Depressed by his refusal, he “spends the most unromantic evening of his life” with his old Literature Professor, Judith Fairfield (Allison Janney) – “the best teacher he ever had” – whose profound cynicism and ageing sexual appetite rivals Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate” (1967). Despite Jesse’s lapse with Judith, the movie for the most part stays on moral track. It explores the reasons sharply and intelligently as to why older men are attracted to younger women, and analyses significant life-education issues such as the threat of retirement, job loss, nostalgia for college life, the differences between infatuation and mature love, encroaching cynicism, and the problems of growing old.

One should not be put off by the film’s abstract-sounding title. This is a movie suitable for adult viewing, not because of any salaciousness, which it could have had, but doesn’t, but because it is thought-provoking enough to keep one thinking constantly. It doesn’t develop the relationship between Jesse and Zibby in any Hollywood-predictable way, for instance, but chooses to throw its focus on the lessons in life that flow from it.

This is a film that deserves a lot of reflection well after its final credits have rolled by.

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