Liberal Arts (2011)
Liberal Arts (USA) Directed by Josh Radnor Written by Josh Radnor Starring Josh Radnor; Elizabeth Olsen; Richard Jenkins; Allison Janney; Zac Effron; Elizabeth Reaser; John Magaro
Actors cannot often take bad material and make it good, but they can elevate films and make them better than they would have been otherwise. In the case of Liberal Arts, a reasonably conceived and executed low budget project is raised in quality by the mere presence of it’s co-star, Elizabeth Olsen.
It is sometimes difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes certain actors interesting when other perfectly capable performers merely take up space. In Olsen’s case, perhaps it’s her expressive eyes; the quiet calm she seems to exude; or the vulnerability we sense from her. Whatever the case, Olsen grounds the film; and though 35 year old NYC college guidance counselor (Josh Radnor) is the protagonist, it is 19 year old student Zebby (Olsen) we can’t help caring the most about. Outstanding in Marcy Martha Marlene, Olsen makes the very best of the role given to her, imbuing her character with depth that far exceeds the confines of the page.
Writing and directing his second feature (following Happythankyoumoreplease), Radnor is fine as Jesse, a man in his mid-thirties who finds himself depressed and reeling after his live-in girlfriend breaks up with him. Lost in his obsession with books, and largely devoid of a social life, he takes up his old favorite undergraduate professor Hoberg’s (Richard Jenkins) timely offer to attend his retirement ceremony and returns home to Ohio, which happens to be where the real life Radnor grew up and attended Kenyon College.
A plot that involves an adult at a crossroads returning to his roots to discover the essence of his or her personhood has been done many times with any number of variations on the theme so there is nothing overly new here to be mined. Whatever joy there is to be found derives mostly from a cast consisting of Olsen, and supporting players Jenkins, Alison Janney as english Professor Judith Fairfield, and Zac Effron and John Magaro as undergraduate students.
Though there is an apt acknowledgment of the inappropriateness of the relationship between Jesse and Zibby, Liberal Arts is a very non-cynical take on the crises of spirit that can envelop adults at various ages juxtaposed with the naivete and wide-openness of youth. The film advocates art in all its forms as a potential antidote to what ails, but also warns against the kind of self-absorption it can entail. Academia too is seen as both a noble profession, but also one dominated by tenure, budget considerations, and department politics.
The intelligent, curious, but still very young Zibby; the philosophical, earthy Nat; and the lonely and depressed Dean are representatives of what it is to be in the throes of figuring out who you are in the world, with all the conflicting insight and confusion that can contain. Jesse is at the mid-point in his life, while professors Hoberg and Fairfield are further along, but all of them suffer from various forms of hopelessness and disallusionment, and are all in their own ways still searching for answers.
The film is unabashedly nostalgic, and, in places, sentimental, representing Jesse’s idealization of his college days, but this spirit may be what keeps the film from getting messier and more emotionally honest, which likely would have taken it up another notch. The characters and situations are not without nuance, though Radnor is pushed toward an ending that tries too hard for a neat, though soulful conclusion, something that life itself rarely extends us.