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|Sundance London Review: Liberal Arts|
|Written by Ivan Radford|
|Saturday, 28 April 2012 06:38|
Director: Josh Radnor
""Why should we spend all our time listening to obscure indie bands, right?"
That's Jesse (Radnor), after Zibby (Olsen) gives him a mix CD of classical music. The line tells you everything you need to know about Liberal Arts, a sweet coming-of-age tale that sees a guy go back to his old college and fall in love with a student. He's 35. She's 16. But they both like Beethoven, so it's ok, right?
Josh Radnor’s second feature as writer, director and actor knows the kind of territory its in. It’s the kind of film where people make mix tapes for each other. The kind of film where guilt, morality and the transcendent beauty of Mahler are written down in long, flowery letters and sent to each other in the post.
But while Liberal Arts treads the line of a kooky, indie romance, it does so with a sentimental streak that keeps it utterly sincere. Jesse’s nostalgic urge to go back to Kenyon College – a timeless place that feels the same even though everyone is half his age – is clearly founded from Radnor’s own mid-life longing, a feeling echoed by Richard Jenkins’ retiring professor, an old man who is still isn’t ready to leave campus.
As Jesse’s inappropriate crush, Elizabeth Olsen is as charming and fantastic as ever. Her older-woman-in-a-girl’s-body feels closer to Manhattan's Mariel Hemingway than modern MPDGs, nailing the balance between witty sophistication and emotional naivety.
Their romantic entanglement is believable but, crucially, not always the driving force of the film. Radnor resists the pressure to go down the full feel-good route, being sure to underline the difference that 16 years can make – and, in one spiky scene, the difference 40 years can make when Jesse collides with his embittered old Romantics professor (a smoking Allison Janney), on whom he had a massive crush.
Instead, Jessy and Zibby’s plutonic interaction is what shapes his gradual maturing. Discussing unnamed vampire novels in a café, the couple trade blows on books and the role of culture in society. Jesse dismisses the phenomenon as unimportant and stupid. Zibby insists that she likes them. “That’s not a good enough reason to read them!” he splutters. She replies, coolly: “You think it's cool to hate things. And it's not. It's boring. Talk about what you love and keep quiet about what you don't."
Yes, it’s a bit quirky. There are some quirks in it. People quirk. But with every clichéd piece of over-written dialogue, Radnor’s personal movie feels a little more genuine. With a braver story arc or sharper script, Liberal Arts could have been the Garden State for 30-somethings. It isn’t, but it’s endearing to watch something so open-hearted. Even when Zac Efron turns up in a woolly hat as the local hippy on campus, he plays it for hugs more than laughs.
For more college nostalgia goodness, head this way for our Josh Radnor Liberal Arts interview.