A romantic take on the collegiate experience
Director: Josh Radnor
Cast: Josh Radnor (HappyThankYouMorePlease), Elizabeth Olsen (MarthaMarcyMayMarlene)
Runtime: 97 min.
by John DeSando
“And binding with briars my joys and desires.” William Blake, from Songs of Experience
Liberal Arts is a small, endearing film about idealism, the reality of life, the complicated nature of aging, and the beauty of experience. The briars play a part, but mostly it’s about the romanticism of academia versus the reality of growing old. That’s quite a bit for 97 minutes, but writer/director Josh Radnor does an admirable job setting straight the hopes that a superior education like his at Kenyon College can foster.
This lyrical film, like the simple poem that opens this review, makes no grand demands as it juxtaposes the beauty of undergraduate reading and writing with the reality of love not quite mature enough and maturity not ready enough. New York City college admissions counselor Jesse (Josh Radnor) at 35 returns to his college to visit a retiring professor, Peter (Richard Jenkins), and falls for a 19 year old coed, Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen). Radnor’s alma mater, Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, is the beautiful location although not identified.
The complications may be obvious given the differences in their ages, but the issues are spot on—and because I lived that plot as a youngish college administrator I congratulate Radnor for neither over-romanticizing nor condemning youthful idealism and the encroachments of “life,” described as “happening” after graduation and mitigating the romanticism a college English major fosters. That the pop cult ascendance of the Vampire Trilogy may trump the lofty literature of college does not subvert the notion that everything is good given the right place and time.
The sweetness of the film reaffirms Mr. Radnor as a dreamer of quality, a thinker who confirms life’s ambiguities and its promise to those who “say yes” to everything. Again, Blake in Songs of Innocence confirms the efficacy of positive thinking, in this case of feeling the godhead’s presence:
He doth give his joy to all;
He becomes an infant small;
He becomes a man of woe;
He doth feel the sorrow too.
"It's not Tolstoy, but it's not television, and it makes me happy," Zibby says about reading a vampire trilogy. The same could be said of this simple romance underpinned by Blake’s realistic optimism.
John DeSando co-hosts WCBE 90.5’s It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics, which can be heard streaming and on-demand at WCBE.org.
He also appears on Fox 28’s Man Panel
Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.rr.com