Liberal Arts

Year: 2012
Production Co: BCDF Pictures
Director: Josh Radnor
Producer: Josh Radnor
Writer: Josh Radnor
Cast: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, Zac Efron

Most of the theme against which this movie plays is nostalgia – that of Jesse's (Josh Radnor) when his uninspiring job and memories of college life makes him wonder if his best days are behind him.

But I saw another strong undercurrent of satire about the plight of modern masculinity, of a generation of men bereft and disconnected from doing anything with their hands, and in a world which regards men who make a living using their brains or hearts as smug or pathetic – more so the older they get.

It only comes to a head during one scene (the one where Jesse ends up in bed with a former instructor whose class he loved, who tells him after their tryst that he needs to 'build something' or 'punch someone in the face'), but it simmers all the way through.

Jesse's has a sense of superiority along with a worry that knowledge about classic literature makes him a laughing stock among kids (and women) of today, and it's paralleled by the retirement of another favourite teacher Peter (Richard Jenkins), who finds there's nothing left in life for him without the faculty job he thought he hated for decades.

Jesse is asked back to his old school at Peter's request to speak at the latter's retirement dinner, and he jumps at the chance, full of memories of how much he loved his time there. Hanging around is made even nicer by the attraction between him and student Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), the daughter of some friends of Peter.

Over the course of the film their relationship develops while Jesse soul searches for some essential truth in his life and fears of irrelevancy. Despite their growing closeness, he has enough of a problem with Zibby reading trashy popular fiction that it prompts an uncomfortable fight between them.

At various points throughout the story he also comes across a shaman/stoner named Nat (Zac Efron) who doesn't seem to have any life or purpose other than sit around the campus grounds at night but who's full of bro-tastic hippy homilies and advice. In a film with a slightly less sedate tone you might even wonder if he's a figment of Jesse's imagination, his conscience or better nature given life outside his body.

The cast are all great – particularly Janney as the acerbic professor in only a couple of scenes – and while a lot of critics have wished it had a harder approach and a few more rough edges, it's a smart and watchable fairytale about growing up.

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