There seems to be an expectation in your twenties that you will eventually arrive somewhere, that you'll know it when you see it and that you will feel as wise and grown-up as the adults around you. An entire generation seem to find themselves happily waiting for this real life to happen to them, until one day they wake up in their thirties and discover that this is it. Writer and director Josh Radnor elegantly explores this well-trodden territory with "Liberal Arts," a film for people who love college and learning but aren't so sure about this growing-up stuff.
In addition to writing and directing the film, Radnor stars as Jesse, a college admissions officer living in New York City who visits his alma mater to celebrate the retirement of his favorite professor (Richard Jenkins). While there, he befriends a bright young woman, Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), and finds himself falling in love despite his better judgement. A depressed student (John Magaro), a strangely out-of-place spirit guide (Zac Efron) and a friendly bookstore clerk (Elizabeth Reaser) round out the rest of Jesse's world, coming and going rather conveniently. As things progress with Zibby, Jesse finds himself in unfamiliar territory as he must decide what it is that he really wants.
Radnor is a wonderfully capable writer and director, effortlessly moving the plot along without lingering too long in any one area and never too in love with his own work. Radnor understands the slightly embarrassing nature of being an intellectual, and he's wise enough to have the multitude of characters voice his opinions. Professor Hoberg (Jenkins) acknowledges that no one feels like an adult, while yet another professor (the remarkably droll Allison Janney) railing against the selfish and infantile nature of the child-men of Radnor's generation. While these are by no means original thoughts, the film presents them in such a way that they remain worthy of consideration, without excessive navel-gazing.
"Liberal Arts" uses the love and appreciation of music and books as a means of understanding and relating to the people around us, although occasionally going so far as to feel a bit like a lesson on how to properly enjoy the right things. While Radnor never specifically mentions the titles of certain books in his film, it's clear he's alluding to a few heavy hitters such as David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest" and Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" series, the latter of which leads to an amusing squabble between our romantic leads. What ensues is a familiar fight for anyone who's ever argued about taste, as Jesse proclaims the books terrible and Zibby fires back, saying that hating things isn't cool anymore. The problem is, they're both right. In the hazy who-gives-a-crap delirium of these modern times, it's refreshing to watch people acknowledge the delightful escape of reading, the difficulty of feeling out of sync with society and the pleasure of a really good education.
Richard Jenkins and Allison Janney turn in remarkable performances here as gruff and exhausted professors, and Elizabeth Olsen is refreshing and charming, eerily sure of herself and altogether too naive at the same time. Radnor proves himself a gifted actor's director, leading his cast through the material with a deft hand. While some parts of the story verge into the ridiculous, they're still never too far from the truth. Falling in love is kind of ridiculous at times, and it often seems to require that people make fools of themselves. The heartbreak and romance are handled with equal solemnity and quiet joy, with the battle between desire and morality coming into play as well. But it's not as stuffy as all that.
"Liberal Arts" may get a bit muddled along the way, but it stays true to the fundamental journey and is sincere without being schmaltzy, evocative without being arrogant and lively without being pretentious — well, without being too pretentious. It will feel like familiar territory, especially for the collegiate set. It's a very funny, very honest film that is both entirely engaging and truthful at its core.