I don't really know how to rate this film.

Liberal Arts (PG-13)
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Caution: spoilers!

First I should say that I feel like this is a coming-of-age movie for both of its two protagonists, one of whom is 19 and the other 35. (But as another character says at one point, no one ever really feels like an adult. That's something I've often thought, myself, although I'd actually say it's more likely that only most people never really feel like adults. Surely some people must. But I don't think I could fully trust anyone who does.) Anyway... it took a little while for me to get into the movie, and even once I did, it could be a bit hard to watch. But there were also parts I liked or even loved.

It's about a 35-year-old college admissions officer who seems dissatisfied with his life, named Jesse Fisher (Josh Radnor, whom I know from How I Met Your Mother). He travels from NYC to Ohio to attend the retirement ceremony of one of his old professors, Peter Hoberg. While there, he meets a 19-year-old drama student named Elizabeth, who goes by "Zibby" (Elizabeth Olsen). The two of them quickly develop a friendship, and when he goes home, they keep in touch via letters, and their friendship deepens. I should say while in Ohio he also met a couple of other people. One is a genius student named Dean, who suffers severe depression. The other is a hippie named Nat (Zac Efron). Both of them are important to the plot, but not in ways I feel the need to go into.

Anyway, at one point Jesse returns to Zibby's school to visit her, and she tells him that she's a virgin, but she wants to have sex with him. He refuses, which angers her. I want to say I have slightly mixed feelings about this, as I've always believed it's genuinely possible for people with an age gap (in this case, 16 years) to develop real feelings for each other, even fall in love. As Zibby points out, she's advanced for her age, and as Jesse says, he's a bit stunted. And in any event, they clearly have a strong friendship. (Aside from an argument about the merits of a series of "Twilight"-like books, in which I felt Jesse was being entirely too condescending.) Zibby also makes a good point that it's kind of weird for him to refuse to have sex with her because he cared about her and respected her too much, which on the surface sound like decent reasons to want to have sex with someone. But I don't believe that was the real reason, because I very much doubt Jesse is the kind of person who would be tempted to have sex with someone he didn't feel that way about, at least if they were too young for him. The real reason, as he explains, is that when he was her age he thought he knew, well, how complicated sex can be, but that he now knows he didn't understand that at all. And I do want to say that despite my feeling there's not necessarily anything wrong with people of such different ages being together, the thought of them having sex did make me feel rather uncomfortable. And I'm sure he made the right decision. (I'm not sure whether he would have made a different decision if she weren't a virgin, but I'd like to believe he wouldn't have. I feel like their hooking up would have been a mistake whether she was a virgin or not.)

Well, like I said, all this angered Zibby, and she told him to leave. Later that night, she went to a party to get drunk and make out with some guy (whether they ended up having sex is unclear). Meanwhile, Jesse hooked up with a former professor of his named Judith Fairfield (Allison Janney). He had loved her class, when he went to school there himself years ago, but they obviously didn't have anything like the kind of feelings for each other that Jesse and Zibby had. It's quite ironic, too, that neither of them let their own age gap stop them from having sex, and that Judith called Jesse a "kid", as if he were still in her class. Anyway, that hookup was definitely a mistake, though not so much because of the age gap as because of their very different personalities.

Later still, Jesse returned to the school to see Dean, for a reason I won't go into. But he ended up seeing Zibby again, and... well, she wasn't angry anymore. I'd like to think they'll maintain their letter-writing friendship, though that's not entirely clear. He also starts a relationship with a woman in New York named Ana, who had been seen fleetingly at least a couple of times before, without any real interaction between them. But she and Jesse shared a love of books, and he felt she was "age appropriate", a fact he mentioned to her but didn't explain. (I'd like to think he will explain everything about Zibby at some point, especially if they maintain their friendship. Not that I believe past relationships are necessarily the business of people in new relationships, but still... it just feels like the kind of thing where not saying anything about it would be kind of a lie of omission.)

So there, I've spoiled pretty much the entire movie, but I wouldn't know how to write about it at all without doing so. I still have mixed feelings not just about the relationship between Jesse and Zibby, but more so about the movie as a whole. But ultimately I thought it was a really good movie, a really responsible movie, with good characters and a good story. And if you put a gun to my head and told me to rate it, I'd probably give it one heart. But I still wouldn't be entirely comfortable with that rating, so I'm glad no one's forcing me to officially rate the movie.

coming of age index