Friday, 6 September 2013

Liberal Arts, dir/scr. Josh Radnor, st. Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, John Magaro, Elizabeth Reaser

The relentless forward momentum of maturity, those who are trying to resist it, those who are hungrily encouraging it, and those for whom such transitory times spark fear for the future and nostalgia for a former era: these central thematic motifs in writer/director/actor Josh Radnor's hugely enjoyable and unrepentantly sweet Liberal Arts are neatly and incisively observed with all the attention to detail of a college dissertation. College Admissions Officer Jesse Fischer (Radnor) is invited back to his old college by his old English professor Peter Holberg (Jenkins), a man for whom leaving the institute threatens Brooks Hatlen-levels of fear concerning his inability to operate in the outside world. Facing a similar crisis of age concern is Zibby, a Drama-majoring sophomore, whose ravenous appreciation for literature and music has left her unable to find an on-campus soul-mate. Upon meeting, Zibby and Jesse instantly connect over baroque music and books, but sixteen years her senior, Jesse has concerns about the relationship's longevity. Radnor's film re-spins the classic coming-of-age trope into a three-tiered observation, with Zibby, Josh, and Peter all having reached the same impasse of where there lives go next, albeit from three different - but equally compelling - vantage points. How honest and perceptive one finds the screenplay will depend very much on how profoundly one is stimulated by Beethoven and Blake, on whether the Arts move and stir your soul, but Liberal Arts isn't about the wonderment of "I-was-never-the-same-after-that-Summer" transience. Rather it speaks to those for whom chapter-turning comes unnaturally. That "all in the end is harvest" is a hard mantra to live by when you're uncertain what the impending next stage of life holds. Olsen is as interminably watchable as she was in the terrifyingly low-key Martha Marcy May Marlene and Red Lights, and Richard Jenkins and Allison Janney as Jesse's wearily vampy poetry professor Judith Fairfield, both give exceedingly nuanced and heartbreaking performances as characters looking down the barrel of their Autumnal years. Finally, there's a superb, near-unrecognisable turn from Zac Efron as Nat - a kind of beanie-toting campus sage who periodically pops up to dispense wisdom to the troubled Jesse. Like much of the film, it's one of many elements that sound terrible on the page, but transpires to be rather delightful on screen.