When you're young ridiculing older people isn't just fun it's necessary. Youth has nothing but itself for its own defence. The Rimbauds and twenty-something Orson Welles's are statistical anomalies. Mostly it's bravado and a bubble of self advertising, the louder and further fetched the better. So when oldies with their threatening experience, judgement and culture appear at the gates it's time to render all that into shiftless bigoted conservatism, goofy music and culture that wouldn't shock a rabbit and senility. From the other side (where I now am) there's no comeback; if you lampoon the young as a senior you just look like a dick.
But it's not all extremes. There's a whole tribe of folk who, while ageing, still live young and charge the silver backs of others only a handful of years older as generationally distant and of quaint living archaeology. It is easily forgotten that three years equals a chasm when it's 18 and 15. But 47 and 50 .... Sorry.
The cruelty of all of this, of course, is that the only group to whom age becomes a sheddable skin is that which, having passed the big zeros has relaxed about it. The rest is hysteria.
Liberal Arts is a delicate essay on this. If at times it shows its didacticism too easily the sheer continuous appeal of its cast and their performances do much to soothe. In fact, walking away from the cinema it struck me that every single cast member, even the ones playing cranky seemed to have come fresh from the best sauna and massage of their lives. There is conflict in this story but it's played so smoothly there's never a chance of the slightest furrow. That's not faint praise as I'll get to.
Jesse has found himself nowhere at 35. Having enjoyed his uni years, he took his unmarketable degree on a drift that led him to working in admissions, facilitating increasingly younger people's passage to the salad days of campus life. He gets a call from a much loved professor from his old uni inviting him to the older man's retirement dinner. What else is he going to do? He accepts and jumps in a rental and gets there. In the course of the multi-car logistics of setting up a lunch date with colleagues he is struck dumb by the radiance of their daughter Zibby. Over lunch and the digestive afterglow he fills to the brim with love for her. She's pretty keen on him. She's 19. He makes his excuses and leaves. A sullen evening walk later Jesse is accosted by a harlequin-like stranger (a deliriously funny Zac Efron) who persuades him to crash a nearby campus party. Guess who's there. So, should they start something up? If so, what? Etc.
What ensues is a far more credible cultivation of a relationship than I was expecting from a writer/director/star driven film. Woody Allen didn't have to be that advanced in years before his on screen romances started to look high fantastical. Here, it is kept to a credible early spring/mid summer pairing who are close enough in vintage to work but distant enough to allow conflict. Meantime, there's Jesse's old Professor who panics over his retirement and near debases himself trying to get his job back, Jesse's old romantic poets tutor whose ageing has left her insolubly embittered, and Zibby is coursing toward a decision that will bring her relationship with Jesse to an ethical brink.
All of this is handled so smoothly it should just drip from the screen and evaporate on the cinema carpet but it doesn't. The central pair of Josh Radnor and Elizabeth Olsen work and the tension between them due to the age gap is constantly on screen despite the warming harmony we mostly see. Radnor is constant self-doubt. Olsen is a 19 year old reaching beyond her years but still constrained by the vulnerability her inexperience gives her. The more I think of it the more extraordinary her performance appears. The reconciliation of this situation happens not just from its confronting moment of truth but through a separate thread you can discover for yourself which, while it feels a little too tidy, provides a glimpse of Jesse as a self accepting thirty something. Zibby has more to go through.
But if it weren't for the seriousness and import of the issues of letting go of false ideals and grasping the realities of ageing and that seriousness given such generous air to speak, this film might just be a rehash of the jaded square rejuvenated by a sparking young thing so enamoured of the late 60s that it might well form its own genre. Harold and Maude reversed the casting and kept the memento mori centre screen and created something new. Liberal Arts doesn't but doesn't have to. It's like morning tea with a friend who has stumbled upon a revelation about themselves that is potentially life changing but so well articulated and good natured that it's a pleasure to hear rather than a grating indulgence. One and a half hours of a conversation you'll be glad you overheard.