One of the reasons I love movies and going to the cinema is that films can provoke within us the full range of human emotions.
Films can entertain us, make us laugh, make us cry, even terrify us (sometimes for the wrong reasons). Documentaries can help us learn about the world in which we live and romantic comedies can help fan the flames of romance and make us fall in love.
Every now and again though, and sometimes quite unexpectedly, we find a movie that we can connect with on a personal level. Watching it, you feel as if the director has taken aspects from your own life and put them up on screen for everyone to see. For me, LIBERAL ARTS is one such film.
LIBERAL ARTS tells the story of 35-year-old college admissions advisor Jesse Fisher (Josh Radnor), who returns to his alma mater for a former professor’s retirement dinner.
Jesse is stuck in a rut. Unhappy and unfulfilled in his job, and recently dumped by his girlfriend, he spends most of his time in the company of a good book. Revisiting his old university, encounters with his two favourite professors (wonderfully played by Richard Jenkins and Allison Janney) threaten to shatter the romantic facade that he had constructed of his time there. However, he develops a friendship with a 19-year-old sophomore called Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), who shows him the opportunities and connections that can be created by saying ‘yes’ to life.
Following on from HAPPYTHANKYOUMOREPLEASE, this is How I Met Your Mother star Josh Radnor’s second film as writer-director-actor. It certainly fits the mold of a quirky US indie comedy (coming-of-age story, people doing achingly hip retro things like sending handwritten letters, eccentric minor characters, etc) but Radnor’s script has an abundance of charm and a healthy mix of humour and pathos, and perfectly captures the awkwardness and conflict Jesse feels as his romance with Zibby blossoms.
LIBERAL ARTS has much in common with the 2004 film GARDEN STATE. Both films spoke to a generation. GARDEN STATE was aimed at those in their mid-twenties and LIBERAL ARTS speaks to the same people who are now in their mid-thirties. Both films were written and directed by people best known for their television work (Zach Braff made his name in Scrubs). The central plot of both films features a disillusioned man returning to a place in his past and finding a new lease of life and inspiration through a relationship with a younger woman.
Watching the film, it is easy to see why Jesse would fall for the charms of Zibby. She is smart, pretty, funny, knowledgeable about the arts and mature beyond her years, and shares many of the same interests as Jesse. At one point Jesse asks her if she is advanced or if he is just stunted.
The issue of their 16-year age gap only comes up when the possibility of a romantic encounter occurs. This leads to a funny scene (that will feel familiar to many) where Jesse works out how old Zibby would have been when he was 19, 16, etc, then tries to justify the attraction by working out what the difference would be when he is 76.
The central relationship between the two characters works because of the wonderful performance by Elizabeth Olsen. She lights up the screen with her presence and builds on the excellent work she did in MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE whilst showcasing a different side to her as an actress.
In person at the Q&A that followed a preview, Miss Olsen proved to be just as witty, charming and mature as her onscreen character and cast a spell over me (and everyone else in the audience at The Gate no doubt) as easily as she did over Jesse in the film.
Watching LIBERAL ARTS, I could see a lot of myself in the character of Jesse and could therefore identify and empathise with him. Like Jesse, I am in my mid-thirties and developed my passion for the arts when I was at University. I had always been a fan of movies ever since I was taken to a galaxy far, far away a long time ago, but it wasn’t until I took a film studies course that I began to learn about the language of cinema, which helped to develop my appreciation for the medium. Courses in classic American and European cinema expanded my cinematic knowledge beyond what was showing at the local multiplex, and led me to The Belmont Picturehouse, where I would spend many happy years as a customer and then as manager.
Appreciation of the arts is an incredibly subjective thing, and anyone who has ever had an argument with someone over a film, album or book will find something to relate to in a scene where Jesse chastises Zibby for being a fan of an unnamed series of vampire novels.
She argues that he is being a snob and brings up some valid points concerning criticism: people will often use hyperbole to exaggerate the merits of particular works of art, argue over the balance, and value, of critical and commercial popularity, and criticise works without knowing them firsthand. (I actually watched the Keith Lemon movie recently so I can feel justified in calling it the worst film I have ever seen in a cinema.)
So, as you might have gathered, for both personal and professional reasons, LIBERAL ARTS has emerged as one of my favourite films of the year. Am I correct in my appraisal? Well, I’m happy to have a civilised adult discussion with you about it, but only after you have watched it for yourself… which you can do at all good Picturehouse Cinemas from Friday 5 October.