As a former Calvin student scrolling through Netflix, when I found the promising title of Liberal Arts, I was sort of under obligation to check it out. According to the lovely and concise gods of Netflix summaries, “A speaking engagement brings 35-year-old Jesse back to his college alma mater, where he’s blindsided by nostalgia and a plucky sophomore named Zibby. His life is in the tank. Hers is just starting.” (Calvin writers community: who are those gods, by the way, and how can I get that gig?) What the gods don’t tell you is that Jesse is Josh Radnor (Ted of How I Met Your Mother) and his alma mater is none other than Calvin College.
Well, no, not exactly Calvin College. The school that Jesse returns to is in Ohio and is never mentioned to have a religious orientation—the chapel looks both relatively unused and unreformed. But it is a liberal arts school, and Jesse even has my same bachelor’s degree of a major in English and a minor in history (albeit with a distinct lack of secondary education).
After his graduation from this nameless institution, Jesse moved to New York City and began working for another nameless institution as an admissions counselor. Judging from the opening montage of the movie, he doesn’t feel like that job is where his great gladness and the world’s great need meet. The movie begins as he’s in the middle of breaking off an at-least-somewhat-serious relationship, not to mention having nearly all of his clothes stolen from his laundromat. So yes, “in the tank” could summarize this Icarian fall. “Ordinary” or “Quaintly post-graduate” might also have worked, though.
Meanwhile, back in the Midwest, a beloved professor, Peter Hoberg (played by Richard Jenkins), is retiring. He calls up his former student, Jesse, and asks him to come to the celebration dinner. As I sat, unsuspectingly, watching this movie, this was the point where I began to feel a strange twinge of deja vû. Not that my beloved professors have invited me to retirement dinners, but that I have beloved professors, with whom I keep in at least casual correspondence. The way Jesse and his professor talk together, it doesn’t sound like they bonded over Jesse’s long summer research internship. It doesn’t even particularly sounds like Jesse took anything more than an introductory-level class with Hoberg. It sounds more like Jesse was just a particularly gregarious student who enjoyed spending office hours in Hoberg’s office.
I felt like I could be Jesse.
While Jesse’s in town visiting Professor Hoberg, he meets Elizabeth, or Zibby. She tells him about the improv group she’s in and how she loves the thrill of always having to “say yes” to everything the other actors do. Soon after, she raves to him about a “music survey” course she took that taught her to love classical music. “This was all music I didn’t know or care about at all…Well, you know how you can be told something so many times and it’s like, whatever, and, then you have a great teacher take you through it and it’s like, Beethoven. Whoa.”
I felt like I could be Zibby.
After the retirement dinner, Jesse runs into Nat (Zac Efron, in probably his best role ever), a college-age, though not college-attending guy who wears a winter hat wherever he goes, along with an oversized thin sweatshirt, a pair of ragged khaki shorts, and either TOMS or some other sort of shapeless boat-shoe. Nat calls Jesse Ethan, extols about how “there’s a lot of information in trees,” and laments all the preservatives in food because they “are making our corpses take longer to decompose.”
I felt like…well, I know I’ve met a lot of Nats. Most of them only once. They are elusive creatures.
Similarly, I have my own share* of Professor Judith Fairfields (Allison Janney), a romantic literature professor whom Jesse idolizes. Though he never knew her personally, her class changed his life and view of literature. And I have met, known, and been Dean (John Magaro), the clinically depressed, perhaps overly intellectual, “I just can’t get over how, like, aggressively unhappy I am here” foil of Zibby’s near-Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl optimism and happiness.
And of course there’s Professor Hoberg himself, a man who thought he was done teaching, so he decided to retire, only to realize he wasn’t actually ready to. There is a heartbreaking scene where Hoberg goes to the head of his department, a man Hoberg hired twenty years ago, and tries to see if he can rescind his decision to retire. The unsurprising argument between the two men with its unsurprising result reminded me of all the professors at Calvin taking buy-outs right now, or the ones who, retiring when I was a student, talked about how they felt they were being forced out and under-appreciated.
At one point, Hobert says to Jesse, “Do you know how old I feel like I am? Nineteen. Since I was nineteen, I have never felt not nineteen. But I shave my face, and I look in the mirror, and I’m forced to say, ‘This is not a nineteen-year-old staring back at me.’”
We talk a lot on this blog about growing up. It makes sense; it’s something that we’re all, as twenty-somethings, doing. We talk about transitions, we talk about feeling different than we expected to feel, about “this older, wiser me watching over this ninteen-year-old rough draft, who’s full of all this potential, but has to live more to catch up with that other self somehow.” And, like tired CNN reporters, we constantly ask if this is a good thing or a bad thing. We’re like Jesse, talking to Zibby about why “the college years” are so nostalgic for him.
Zibby: It’s just as hard and annoying to be young as it is to be old, I’m assuming.
Jesse: I get the “we’re all equals” argument, and it’s sorta true, but it’s sorta not. I feel different now than I did when I was here, and I hate to break it to you, but so will you.
This movie, and this blog, could be a testament to how much this all hurts: life, and time, and how they just refuse to stop moving on. We all have a time we’re trying to get to, or a place we’d like to go back to, and we just can’t for one reason or another, and that drives us mad. Mad with nostalgia, mad with grief or loss, mad with fear. And we could leave it there, all of us going slowly mad as the world spins on. But we won’t because we’re liberal arts students, after all.
Nat and Jesse sit on the lawn after dark.
Nat: You want some good news? Caterpillars…they’re just scooting along, right, being caterpillars. At some point, these cells called imaginal cells—scientists don’t know where they come from or why they appear—but these imaginal cells come along and say, “Get psyched, Caterpillar! It’s butterfly-turning-into time!” And what do all the other caterpillar cells do when these imaginal cells show up?
Jesse: I have no idea.
Nat: They attack ‘em! Try to kill ‘em. They’re like, “Screw you, imaginal cells. We’re happy being a caterpillar. Get lost.” But eventually, the imaginal cells keep growing, and overtake the destiny of the caterpillar and will it into this cocoon. And then guess what happens next.
Jesse: …The caterpillar turns—
Nat: The caterpillar turns into a butterfly.
In the immortal words of Jesse, “A liberal arts education solves all your problems. Totally worth the money.”
*If you have seen this movie, please understand: I’m referring to the first-half-of-the-movie Judith Fairfield, not the -second-half-of-the-movie Judith Fairfield.
Mary Margaret is a 2013 English, history, and secondary education grad who went rogue and became a Social Worker in Pennsylvania’s Child Welfare system. Specifically, she works as a caseworker in the Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network finding families for children and educating the masses about foster care, adoption, and permanency planning. She made it over the grad-school hurdle with gold stars and warm fuzzies and is on to the next big adventure: the unknown of adulthood. Her major writing dream right now is to finish her science fiction novel that explores the concurrent futures of child welfare and artificial intelligence.