Walking across a college campus is an evocative image, conjuring halcyon days of unfettered didactic discourse and effortlessly lateral social expansion. I felt that way before I had been to college, imagining it as some cobblestoned Shangri-La, splendid in both its verdant summers and the spartan white of its winters. Once I was in college, and despite all evidence to the contrary, I continued to feel this way; with the right song on my iPod, the long humps across campus to get from one class to the next became the expeditious moments of my personal bildungsroman, the interstitial digestion of the knowledge upon which I had voraciously gorged myself. Half a decade removed from the annals of higher learning, I still wrap the image in a soft patina of wistful yearning, understanding now, more fully than ever, that those were the moments that most perfectly encapsulated the impossibly dichotomous quintessence of university: the languid vagabonding and the rigorous intellectual pursuit, the freedom from consequence and the promise of progress, the movement outward as well as upward.
That these ephemeral, inconsequential promenades retain their gilded aura is a testimony to the promise of college more so than the actuality, as anyone who has ever crammed for a final or stayed up all night to finish a thesis can attest. But that promise was a beautiful one, trimmed with the satisfaction of self-government and willful diligence. Josh Radnor, no doubt, acutely understands the power of that image as a metaphor, and employs it beautifully in Liberal Arts, his second feature as writer-director-star. What makes it a good film is his ability to illustrate the discord between the Platonic ideal and the objective reality of the university machine; what makes it a great film is Radnor’s lack of cynicism and variegated perspective as he does so.
Radnor plays Jesse Fisher, an admissions officer for a university in New York, who spends virtually every waking moment of his life with a book in hand. Recently separated from his girlfriend and worn down by the numbing redundancy of his job, Jesse, personally invited by one of his former professors to attend his retirement dinner, jumps at the chance to spend a weekend back in Ohio, traipsing about his alma mater. The professor in question, Peter Hoberg, is one of the great collegiate archetypes: the baby boomer to whom higher education was a means of political protest and social activism who has returned to breed a generation of literate, conscious, and progressive minds. As Peter, Richard Jenkins lends an aloof and credible ease to some of the script’s broader characterizations, giving him just the right touch of integrity, authority, and self-efficacy.
While staying with Peter, Jesse is introduced to Zibby (a radiant Elizabeth Olsen), a drama student whose mother was in Peter’s class years before. Zibby has many of the trappings of the manic-pixie-dream-girl, and yet avoids all of the common pitfalls of such a character. Assured and sprightly, Zibby senses an immediate connection between herself and Jesse despite their sixteen year age gap. Following a chance meeting on campus later that night, Jesse agrees to meet Zibby for coffee the next day. Zibby speaks of herself in the beautifully distilled expository manner only afforded by first dates and the movies. She explains how her improv class has taught her to “say yes to everything,” and to approach life both on and off the stage with an openness to all of its possibilities; she enthuses about her Introduction to Classical Music class, which has acquainted her a world of beauty previously unknown to her. Despite his better judgment, Jesse finds himself under Zibby’s spell.
When Jesse returns to New York, Zibby leaves him with that ultimate totem of modern courtship: a mixtape. Handing him a burned CD of pieces by Mozart, Vivaldi, Wagner, and other composers, Zibby urges Jesse to write to her — to really write, with pen and paper. The relationship that unfolds between them via post is innocent, erudite, and sincere, as they elucidate and share their personal relationships to the works of these great composers. “Grace, I realized, was neither time nor place dependent,” Jesse writes, “all we need is the right soundtrack.”
Radnor’s deep love and respect for both the written word and the profound impact of music are apparent, but his wide-eyed, rapturous zeal for the pillars of western art prevents his appreciation from becoming too dry or scholarly. To put a finer point to it, there is nothing snobbish about Liberal Arts, a quality which was no doubt of concern to Radnor in its writing. In fact, “snobbish” is the very term Zibby lobs at Jesse when he tells her that college is not simply about understanding different points of view, but “also about developing taste.” That his delivery belies the implicit condescension of such a statement speaks to Radnor’s strengths as both an actor and a director. Rather than take sides with either Zibby or Jesse, Radnor recognizes the truth in the great Dylan lyric “You’re right form your side / I’m right from mine” and the role of perspective in determining truth. Jesse wonders aloud whether he and Zibby connect because she’s advanced or because he’s stunted; Radnor realizes it’s because they meet somewhere in between.
I dare not reveal how Jesse and Zibby’s relationship unfurls; though it is not quite unexpected, it is absolutely right, and it is rare for this sort of film to eschew the more impractical tropes of relationship films in favor of a more considered, authentic, and earned resolution. “Guilt before we act is called morality,” Jesse says at one point in the film, and this struggle with the weight of consequences both real and perceived — the “struggle between sacred and profane love,” to borrow his description of Wagner’s Tannhauser — comprises the film’s ethical and philosophical core.
Allison Janney is reliably impeccable in a small but significant role as the British Romantic Literature professor with whom Jesse briefly reconnects and John Magaro is memorable as Dean, a sensitive, literate college student who opens up to Jesse after discovering a shared admiration for David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Through Jesse’s interactions with the both of them, Radnor is able to explore the pitfalls of idolatry and the moral imperative of a deep interpersonal connection. It is in these scenes that Liberal Arts is its most altruistic, humane, and assertive in its promotion of benevolence and generosity.
As an actor, Radnor has a perfectly restrained and affable demeanor that plays well with everyone in the cast. He’s equal parts Cusack and Piven, alchemizing their strengths and downplaying the cartoonish exaggerations native to the broad suburban fantasies of the eighties. He never feels like he’s playing the straight man, but his careful understatement perfectly frames Olsen’s endearing turn as Zibby. While less natural and unaffected than she was in Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene (an appropriate choice for playing a genial drama student), Olsen is just as confident and sublime as she has ever been; she continues to be one of the most interesting and promising young actresses working today. Zac Efron plays delightfully against type as a new-agey deus ex machina, stealing most of his few scenes. But it’s Elizabeth Reaser’s effortless charm as an introverted bookstore clerk which ultimately makes her the warmest and most touching character in the film.
With Liberal Arts, Josh Radnor has not only shown significant growth as a writer and director, he has miraculously managed to romanticize both the past and the future in a manner that is both engaging and reaffirming. “This right now, all this stuff you’re feeling,” Jesse tells Dean late in the film, “this is a footnote.” That may be, but sometimes the footnotes are the most interesting parts of a story.