A ‘liberal’ lesson in the pursuit of life

Zibby, played by Elizabeth Olsen, and Jesse, Josh Radnor, stroll through campus. Radnor also wrote and directed “Liberal Arts."
Zibby, played by Elizabeth Olsen, and Jesse, Josh Radnor, stroll through campus. Radnor also wrote and directed “Liberal Arts.”
Photo from IMDb

A man sits in a dimly lit room bent over a piece of paper struggling to justify developing a relationship with someone who wasn’t even born until his sixteenth birthday.

He subtracts their ages, 35 and 19. He realizes that he had already graduated college when she was still in single digits.

He begins to give up, until he realizes that when he is 50, she will be 34, when he is 87 she will be 71, and suddenly the differences don’t seem so appalling.

The above scene is one of my favorites in Josh Radnor’s film “Liberal Arts.” There is no dialogue, barely any sound; just a man, a pen and a piece of paper.

But everyone in the audience understands exactly what the numbers mean and what is going through the character’s mind.

Although I was unable to attend Campus Programming Board’s showing of the film last week, being the connoisseur of flaky indie films that I am, I had already viewed “Liberal Arts” multiple times previously.

Jesse Fischer, the film’s protagonist, is a  35-year-old admissions officer who never quite let go of his alma mater. Zibby is a 19-year-old student attending said college.

When invited to revisit the campus to attend the retirement festivities of a beloved professor, Jesse leaps at the opportunity to step back in time.

I enjoy this film more and more at each viewing. “Liberal Arts” offers an epiphany unto itself that we should be quick to recognize as attendants of a small liberal arts school.

As I lay in a bed strewn with assignments and reminders of the deceivingly far-off graduation deadline, I sympathize with both Jesse and Zibby.

College is its own world where it is acceptable to break out into a game of hacky sack, or spend forty food points on ice cream and soft pretzels at one a.m. or exclusively use disposable dishes and silverware.

But college isn’t just about clinging onto the excuse of not yet being an adult. It is the one last “bubble” where it is socially acceptable to still not know who you are, or where you want to go.

And that freedom is very hard to give up.

It is easy to see why Jesse would want to relive his college years, and with a young intellectual who shares his taste for long walks through the campus of Radnor’s real life alma mater, Kenyon College.

Those who seek knowledge gravitate to arenas such as college. It is a place full of life, ambition and the pursuit of education.

Perhaps I am embellishing a bit, but “Liberal Arts” is a film that leaves me feeling more refreshed and energized to learn, and to care, and to embrace my state in life more than ever before.

It is the lines that Elizabeth Olsen delivers through the character of Zibby that give me a moment of “Woah, that makes so much sense.”

For instance in a final scene with Jesse, “I sometimes feel like I’m looking down on myself. Like there is this older, wiser me watching over this 19-year-old rough draft.”

This is a time and a place where it’s okay to not be a final copy.

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