Movie review: ‘Liberal Arts’ is nostalgic, yet fresh

By Kumar Ramanathan

Movie review: ‘Liberal Arts’ is nostalgic, yet fresh

“No one ever feels like an adult,” an old professor quips halfway through “Liberal Arts,” writer−director−actor Josh Radnor’s sophomore effort. This sentiment reflects the film’s central worry: that growing up is a sham and we are eternally trapped in the roller coaster of youth. An introspective and charming film, “Liberal Arts” captures the emotional experience of college with refreshing sincerity.

Radnor plays Jesse Fisher, a 35−year−old New York City high school college counselor invited back to his alma mater for the retirement party of a former professor (Richard Jenkins). Jesse’s trip back to college is fraught with romance and tension, featuring old teachers and awkward parties.

During his visit, he meets with 19−year−old Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) who invites him back onto campus for what turns out to be a weekend of growing up, growing down and soul searching.

It is the earnestness of “Liberal Arts” that makes it so unique. Though the film rarely lets itself get weighed down by seriousness, there is a sense of urgency here for Radnor — both as filmmaker and character — to rediscover himself in an institution that meant so much to him as a younger man.

The supporting characters Jesse meets on campus help to carry the film. Students and professors alike chase fantasies of what it means to be young or old, all somehow running from their lots in life. Zibby tires easily of her fellow students and seeks something a little more refined, while Dean (John Magaro) is rarely seen without a copy of the novel “Infinite Jest” (1996) in hand and his thoughts visibly far from his surroundings.

Rounding out the younger cast is Zac Efron as Nat, a friendly stoner who wants Jesse to find happiness.

“Liberal Arts” requires a certain vulnerability on the audience’s part, thanks to Radnor’s direct way of addressing characters’ concerns and emotions.

Jesse is a middle−aged man returning to a place where adolescent self−searching is the norm.

There, he finds a deeper meditation on growing up that plays powerfully to anyone familiar with such an environment.

The film is also unapologetically cloying. In between Jesse’s trips to the college, he and Zibby write each other letters by hand in order to forge an intimate connection.

Dean and Jesse discuss the power of “Infinite Jest” not solely to provide audiences with a metaphor to guide their viewing, but because the two are sincere literature majors searching for answers hidden in their books.

“Liberal Arts” can be a rewarding film, but in return it asks for indulgence of its sporadic romanticism and sheepish sincerity.

In “Liberal Arts,” college is seen as both an incubator for growth, and a trap that ensnares the human tendency to eternally hope or despair. Here, Radnor does not shy away from the bold hopefulness of youth: All of the film’s characters have growing up to do, and they will continue to do so, it seems, for the rest of their lives. These are daunting concepts to consider, but Radnor deftly gives them their due significance while finding humor in the absurdity of it all.

For the collegiate among us, “Liberal Arts” is an antidote to our culture’s hipster compulsions that dismiss earnestness and romance. Central to the film is the idea that people want to love and to be loved, despite coming face−to−face with cynical mores as they mature.

Radnor’s desire to live and love beyond the cynicism shines through “Liberal Arts,” resulting in an unexpectedly happy piece about the futility of life.

In an interview with the Kenyon Collegian — Kenyon is Radnor’s alma mater and the film’s setting — Radnor was asked why he chose not to name the college in the film. He replied, “So it can be everyone’s college.”

And this film does speak to a universal college experience, replete with its questions and struggles. “Liberal Arts” questions what it means to grow up, asking the ever−urgent question of how to live. For those who enjoy facing that urgent question head−on, Radnor has created a gem.

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