Where to start with Liberal Arts? It’s one of those deep blue funk movies. Zach Braff tackled this issue in Garden State, and Josh Radnor does a similar thing here. Because the reality is that we live in a generation of early onset midlife crises. In the opening moments, 35-year-old Jesse Fisher (Radnor) has nearly every article of clothing he has aside from the shirt off his back stolen from a local laundromat when his back is turned. We can easily surmise that this single event epitomizes his life right now, and this is hammered home rather obviously when his unnamed girlfriend clears her belongings out of his flat. There’s no better symbol of isolation and alienation than a break-up.
That’s when Jesse’s former professor the personable and witty Professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins) pays him a call that doesn’t so much change his life as it alters his course. The professor is preparing for his retirement and as is usually customary a dinner is being held in his honor. Jesse is one of the people he looks to invite and the former liberal arts major takes him up on it gladly as the nostalgia begins to waft over him. It’s excruciatingly corny at times even painfully awkward.
However, it’s no small coincidence that it was filmed at Radnor’s real-life alma mater Kenyon College in Ohio–a beautifully tranquil campus that reflects an idolized Middle America–a perfect place to rediscover youth and ruminate pensively on past endeavors. Jesse does all of the above, but while staying with the professor he also meets Libby (Elizabeth Olsen), a current college sophomore whose father and mother had ties with Peter as well.
Zibby has a self-assurance–the way she carries herself is completely disarming but in a good way. In fact, it intrigues Jesse (Radnor) sweeping him off his feet before he even knows it. But that’s not the only thing that affects him. Nostalgia is a powerful thing. I can feel it now as I close the books on my own college career, and I can only imagine this character who is looking back at those idyllic glory days when he was an optimistic, naive young man.This peaceful campus is completely different feel than the bustling public institution I became accustomed to, but the important things are not all that dissimilar.
It’s crucial to note that at this juncture nothing substantive builds between these two acquaintances romantically, but they do foster an immense connection. While Jesse is taken by Zibby’s personality, she, in turn, is discontent with a contemporary culture where no one dates–everybody’s casual about relationships. She feels unequivocally millennial and yet she readily admits these areas of old-fashionedness.
As she and Jesse part ways, Zibby burns a CD of classical music for her new confidante and entreats him to write her correspondence with pen and paper–like gentlemen and ladies in days of old. It feels very much like a Jane Austen novel, perhaps a little pretentious, but it’s hardly a criticism of these characters. What it creates within the both of them is not only a deeper connection going beyond sexual attraction but an awareness or realization of being — what people these days often call mindfulness.
As they traverse this road together there are some obvious digressions that we could easily foresee, and yet the film takes a mature and altogether realistic path. It considers the relationship between various points in time, passing of the years, looking backward and forwards. In one direction with nostalgia and the other with anxiety and maybe even expectancy. All these are the backdrop for this complicated friendship between a 35-year-old and a college student.
The conclusions of Liberal Arts perhaps feels a bit muddled, but that’s only indicative of life. We’re all set adrift in a world that we don’t know all the answers to. As Zibby so rightfully ascertains life is basically improvised. We’ve just got to step out and live it to the best of our capabilities. Pick ourselves up when we fall and do our best to make the most of what we have. A lot of that comes when we learn how to connect with the people around us in such a way that leaves us content with who we are. I think it can be said that we leave both Jesse and Zibby better off than they began.
This is the only time you get to do this. Read books all day. Have really great conversations about ideas. – Jesse Fisher