Some of the most conflicting words you’ll ever hear involved in a film billing is ‘Directed, Written and Starring’. For every George Clooney that makes it work for the films he does, you got a Tommy Wiseau getting cult status for his for all the wrong reasons. Josh Radnor, thankfully, has not gone and made a shinier version of The Room. Not that this is his first triple billed film, that was 2010’s ‘Happythankyoumoreplease’, nor is it his first time in the Sundance spotlight. What makes this one stand out more, though, is the pure energy, thought and complexion that goes into a movie that, story wise, should not grab as much as it does.
The movie revolves around Josh’s character Jesse, a college recruitment officer in New York City who is not sure where he is going in his life. When he is asked by his old college teacher Peter (‘Man of a Thousand Films’ Richard Jenkins) to come with him to his retirement party back in his old arts college in Ohio, he goes not being sure what he’ll find after years from it. Instead, he finds himself an admirer in Zibby (rising star Elizabeth Olsen) and they share a bond over culture, especially music where they end up exchanging letters with each other after Jesse goes back to New York. As their relationship grows, the complications of how they are both similar and different as people begin to rise and it is not even just with the age difference.
What made me surprised the most about the film’s quality is not just the amount of things it tries to discuss, life, age, popular culture, depression, anxiety, love, but also the success of juggling with it. These topics are not taken lightly and are relatable to many people, young or old, student or graduate, and Radnor is somehow able to take them and flow them into a movie that feels meaningful rather than forcing them into the story to add for effect with issues and topics that relate to all sensibilities and all situations of growing up from college upwards. It felt really sensible, too and not exaggerating what happens.
The cast as well bring something different to the table. Rador’s Jesse is young at heart who is not sure why he is lured into the past of his old school whilst Zibby is almost the opposite in how she’s got an old soul in a 19 year old’s body and it really blends together to make a charming couple who make you not sure where it will go next but you want to see them together in one way or another. Peter is also young at heart and it was lead into his classes and inspirations that Jesse got from him but also is growing to realise that, when you’re confident in moving on, there’s no real going back.
A brief appearance by Allison Janney, who plays Judith Fairfield, another favourite lecturer of Jesse, leads to one of the most unexpected and funniest parts of the movie that would have felt out-of-place if it the payoff was not really enjoyable. There’s even a small entertaining role for Zac Efron, who plays wolly hat wearing hippie Nat, who embraces the wild and craziness that it brings and really is there to show what the guy is capable of outside of his mainstream love stories. Also, props to John Magaro’s Dean whose character subplot looks minor to start off with but adds its own foundation to the message that is given.
What Liberal Arts comes down to is a story that’ll relate different things to different people. Some will take the idea from the argument of the main couple and figure out that the problem with America is no one debates and accept things enough. Others will take the opposite view that we argue too much about trivial matters when we should just live life. Really, it’s a discussion that will go on for a long time but one that seems to have no real winner because of how both sides are designed. But the message that beams through is that there should always be a balance in life on how young you feel and how you really are and even when life throws you around with reality after your university/college years, it should never be forgotten.
Liberal Arts is full of charm, a well crafted story and characters that are relatable, different and fun to watch. The length may bother some cinema goers of under two hours but if you are able to sit through it, it’s a worthwhile experience and really leaves something in you after you leave the cinema that most films do not really do.