Liberal Arts (2012)
★ / ★★★★
Jesse (Josh Radnor), working in New York City as a college admissions officer, is invited by his former undergraduate professor (Richard Jenkins) to attend a retirement ceremony in Ohio. Unhappy with the way things are going in his life in the city, Jesse welcomes the opportunity to return to the university he loves. Through Dr. Hoberg, Jesse meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a sophomore majoring in Drama. They hit it off right away, but there is a problem: Zibby is sixteen years Jesse’s junior, an age gap that is not easy to overlook.
The tone of the first half of the film is relaxed—too relaxed to the point where it is almost boring. As a result, there seems to be an absence of a central conflict. Although Jesse hopes to get to know Zibby in a more intimate way, both in an emotional and physical aspect, he begins to feel that it is wrong for him to take their friendship further because she is far too young despite how mature she presents herself. There is a funny scene that involves the college admissions officer writing on a notebook and comparing their ages. When Jesse was sixteen, Zibby had not been conceived yet.
Couple Jesse’s romantic struggle to his fears about becoming old and feelings of disappointment with how his life has turned out, the two almost cancel each other. While the latter feels more important, the screenplay does not spend much time exploring it. Instead, focus is spent on cutesy scenes of Zibby and Jesse writing each other letters and smiling as they read them—with voiceovers, no less. While Radnor and Olsen look good together, the only scene that works completely is when their characters’ opinions are pit against one another. After Zibby admits that she likes to read vampire novels, Jesse looks at her disbelievingly, for not having better taste.
It gets better somewhat in the second half, but the characters most worthy of attention are not given enough dialogue. Jesse meets Dean (John Magaro), a student on a full scholarship but happens to be on all sorts of medication due to an emotional disorder. He confesses to the alumnus that he is “aggressively unhappy” in the university. At one point Dean asks, “Why did you love it here so much?” There is impact because for the first time we see Jesse scrambling for an answer. As a college admissions officer, he has gotten used to asking the difficult questions during interviews. With Dean, he finds himself on the other side. That is interesting.
And then there is Dr. Fairfield (Allison Janney). Jesse holds her in high regard since he loved her class so much. Despite many compliments he sends her way, she gives him a look of disdain, almost disgusted by a pining former student. Dr. Fairfield’s story is touched on but never delved into. It is unfortunate because there are morsels of truth in her cynicism.
But it all goes back to what Jesse and Zibby have. I just could not buy it. This may sound like an odd critique but I felt Olsen is more intelligent than the character she plays. It is distracting. The script forces her to say words like “whatever” and “like” but it comes off forced, a constant reminder that she is still very young. Now, if Zibby had been written as smarter and more insightful than Jesse, the situation might have been more complex, more interesting. However, that is not what is up on screen.