As someone who has recently left university and starting to move on with life, the themes of Liberal Arts should resonate quite poignantly. 35 year old Jesse (Josh Radnor) returns to his former college for his professor’s retirement party, where he meets 19 year old Elizabeth/Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) and finds himself questioning whether their relationship is something viable, or just his way to bring himself back to romanticised, carefree campus life. Jesse questions his relationship with getting older and whether falling for a college girl is an acceptable thing for a man of his age to do. It’s a pretty standard setup for a bitter sweet romance and it’s all very low key, so why does this film make me so tense with annoyance I find myself pulling out my fingernails?
EVERYONE in Liberal Arts is going through some sort of existential crisis and worse still, they have to share it with everyone ad nauseam. Everyone wants to talk to each other about their problems, their feelings and they try to help each other feel better while becoming better people themselves. Everyone’s sharing, pouring out emotion and self-conflict and everyone is speaking like they are characters reciting deep, introspectively revealing monologues which really get to the core of what it means to be human, like they’re talking in a really meaningful, emotionally poignant indie film.
At one point Zibby gives Jesse a few mixtapes of classical music and we get this montage of handwritten letters exchanged between the two with Jesse explaining how his enjoyment of Zibby’s taste in classical music has completely transformed his perspective on life, the way he appreciates the little things in the world and the way everything looks so much more alive. And he feels so much more alive. He can see colours he’s never seen before. He now stops at random moments going over a crosswalk in New York and Zibby’s music suddenly hits him and he feels this indescribable feeling in his heart which he describes at length, forcing him to just stop in the middle of the city, stretch out his arms and appreciate how alive he feels. And they’re exchanging these letters with voiceovers and this is precisely the moment when the film flips from just being a bit dull, to being really punchy-facey.
There’s another moment when Jesse mockingly reads Zibby’s copy of Twilight only to offer a pompous, overblown critique of it literary flaws. Zibby agrees it’s a poor piece of literature but she enjoys it for escapism, with the film completely overlooking the irony that its own overblown, aggrandising script is itself a piece of literary junk, trying far too hard to seem like an insightful movie script while it can’t even offer any escapism. A small role from Zac Effron produces the only character vaguely likeable, injecting more life into his two scenes than any of the other actors can manage with their endlessly, “meaningful” drivel.
There are things that are good about this film. It’s broad strokes are fine. I rather liked the character arcs and the way it ended and how it dealt with certain character situations. It really wants to be good so at least it tries hard, but it just far overplays its sincerity. Unfortunately, it gets so bogged down in its pondering morose that it makes itself a really difficult film to like.
Review by David Rank
Liberal Arts is out on 5th October in the UK. Certificate 12A (UK). Running time 97 mins.
Comments and feedback are always welcome or just give the film a rating by using the stars at the top.