Liberal Arts – imperfect but eminently loveable


Liberal Arts was one of those films that made me really happy, for no easily identifiable reason. The task for the evening was to find a film that my friend and I would not otherwise see with our boyfriends, and Liberal Arts was perfect.

It is, on its face, about a compelling romantic connection between a 19-year-old girl and a 35-year old man. The precocious and radiant Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) falls for the quiet, gentlemanly, awkward Jesse (Josh Radnor) when he visits his old campus. Jesse is feeling lost in New York, and has nostalgic cravings for college life.

It is Zibby who inspires Jesse – and some of the most beautiful scenes are when the two of them are apart, as they write hand-written letters about the classical music that she has given him. The romance is more frustrating when they are together, but it is strangely satisfying for that.

And the film has more to offer, including an unromantic Romantics lecturer (the fabulous Allison Janney), plenty of literature appreciation, the distortion of memory and nostalgia, a loving but gruff relationship between a professor and his former student, some terrific shots of NYC, and a very sympathetic portrayal of the feeling we have when we are too young to know why age matters.  It reminds you that there isn’t much time to think about poetry after university, and that life does feel a little less intense than it used to.

I think I also loved this film because of the familiarity of the lush, college town campus, the parties crowded with red plastic cups and pulsing with American pop. It reminded me of my university exchange at Cornell, and I thought of a night, something like three years ago,* when I interrupted a take-home exam to dash about on campus with at 3am with two very wonderful friends for the simple reason that it had snowed. I took the photo below that night, in the arts quad. Clearly, not the lushest time of year for Cornell, but lovely all the same.


And, because this is a Canberra blog, I should also say that Liberal Arts is showing at the Dendy, and that you are likely to feel like a hot chocolate afterwards at Koko Black, if only to enjoy the afterglow and to work out why such a funny little film is so loveable.

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