“You know, I’m actually trying to read less.”
“Well I really want to start watching more television.”
*They both laugh.*
This is only one of many jabs made at the boob tube throughout the largely tertiary Liberal Arts and as a devoted fan of the medium this should have been a bit that insulted me, that turned me off its characters (especially given the hypocrisy; the line was after all written by and read to Josh Radnor, star of TV’s own How I Met Your Mother) but within the context of the movie it mostly had the opposite effect. When you know them the line becomes more about the character’s love of books then their dislike of televised dredge and thus I laughed alongside them, falling a little further in love with this surprisingly pleasant little picture.
A synopsis will tell you that Liberal Arts is about the adult-stage coming of age that comes after the much documented one of the late teens/early twenties (something that is becoming more common now that those same artists a getting older), or maybe that it maps a star-crossed romance between a student and the sweet man sixteen years her senior but like a real Arts degree Liberal is never really as focused as that would suggest. It’s much less about actual activity and more about the theory behind it; like learning from the pages of a book ( or majestic notes of music or the shots on the screen, if it is another medium that moves you) rather than through real life like you are supposedly supposed to.
That might sound like a criticism to some, like a stagnant story, but as a fellow story-addict i could strongly relate to the idea, this is my world and so it is this approach that makes the movie work.
Others may find the movie a little less accessible, especially since there are some stilted scenes (everything to do with improv) and clunky attempts at comedy scattered throughout the early section of the movie but those that stay with it a little longer, that get to know it a little better, will likely find a lot to like in this light romantic comedy for the literati. As the aforementioned young student, Zibby, aptly remarks in yet another one of those jabs: “It’s not Tolstoy, but it’s not television, and it makes me happy.”
Though i was torn on her debut Martha Marcy May Marlene and creeped out by the idea of Radnor writing the role of a young woman that falls head over heels in love with his pseudonymous protagonist Elizabeth Olson sells Zibby to perfection; playing precisely the right balance of ‘Advanced’ and adolescent so that you understand both why he would fall for her and yet hesitate over going any further. As a whole their romance feels very real and relatable, by which I mean it is more awkward and ambiguous than actually romantic; for every grand gesture and true connection there is a heavily guarded uncertainty, kept occasionally from self as much as the other side.
I would have been perfectly happy to simply watch these two discuss books and baroque music for the length of the film ( especially if it had gone more like the Twilight conversation, which I think was a missed opportunity; when asked what it was about answering with something like “a virginal young girl falling for a wise and ancient guy” would have been interesting). Thankfully though this isn’t the case and so we get to see Jenkins and Janney make magic from their small supporting roles, each really elevating what could otherwise have been forgettable reflections of the protagonist’s plight into tales capable of carrying their own films. The two male students that Radnor interacts with are perhaps less fleshed out but each – including the surprisingly game Zac Efron – plots their purpose suitably.
This may all sound run of the mill at first, since writers are always reflecting themselves and their own lives within their works which are often in this wish-fulfilment mould but think for a second on the last film that properly depicted what it is to read and not write a story. There are many that show the creation of fictional texts that change lives but few featuring someone simply finding one and falling into it. Another of the lines that stuck with me is this: “Good readers are hard to find these days”; as a reader I would argue that good reflections of ourselves are even harder but here is one. So while you may not laugh that much, be changed or made to cry by the film you will likely leave Liberal Arts wanting to crack open a good book or spin a classic Bach concerto; a change in course that I will consistently celebrate. Good readers are hard to find, but thanks to this film that search may now be a little easier and television ratings just a little lower.