Jesse (Josh Radnor) returns to his alma mater to speak at the retirement of one of his college professors and falls for Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a 19-year-old student. Jesse must deal with this mutual attraction, and what this means for his life.
Josh Radnor is best known for his role as Ted Moseby in How I Met Your Mother, and this role of Jesse that he has created for himself, feels achingly familiar. Jesse is as much a hopeless romantic as Ted, but he is also quieter, more bookish and a lot more thoughtful than the small screen character. However, this deserves to be mentioned, because the parallels are there. Writer/ Director Radnor has obviously spent a lot of time living with Jesse, as he inhabits the character entirely and it is easy for the audience to believe that this is a man stuck in an administration job, who reads books as he walks around town and is emotionally stuck in his teenage years. After all, this is the struggle that Jesse goes through. In falling in love with a woman 16 years younger than himself, Jesse becomes the embodiment of the complaint made by Peter (Richard Jenkins); that in his mind, he is still, and forever will be, 19 years old. Radnor allows Jesse to struggle with this, but instead of the character realising this through meditating on his life, it seems that Jesse makes his realisations through his interactions with the women he finds himself involved with.
Elizabeth Olsen shines in the role of the mini-hipster 19-year-old student who is trying to find herself. She comes off as confident and articulate, and it is this that draws Jesse to her, but underneath, Zibby is vulnerable and unsure of herself – like most of us – but it is this youngness that reminds Jesse of what he is about to undertake. Olsen reminds us that she has the power to take on a strong role and make it her own and she allows Zibby to be articulate and energetic, but still a child underneath it all.
Richard Jenkins has made some strong choices in recent years, and Liberal Arts continues this trend. As Peter, Jenkins is thoughtful, vulnerable, introspective and utterly fascinating on screen. Allison Janney combines romanticism and cynicism in her role as Judith and Zac Efron keeps his career path heading in the right direction as an enlightened and easygoing hippie who Jesse meets on the college campus. Efron is natural on screen and his carefree character balances out Radnor’s uptight and thoughtful Jesse.
Liberal Arts feels as though it is Josh Radnor’s Garden State; the film that tells audiences that he is far from a one trick pony. The film is thoughtful and comments on the choices that we make in our lives, and especially the fact that a Liberal Arts degree does not prepare students for a life in the real world. It is this romantic education, when faced with real world harshness from a teacher, which ultimately lets Jesse down. The film is a little simplistic, and wrapped in the romantic ideas that one cultivates in one’s college years, but this works in the telling of Jesse’s story, as he too is romantic, simplistic and a little pretentious. Radnor’s writing and direction are light and engaging, and if Liberal Arts is anything to go by, he has a strong career ahead of him as a film maker.
In all, Liberal Arts is a thoughtful look back at college and what it actually prepares us for in life, as well as a romantic film about first and engaging love. It could be argued that Josh Radnor’s second film as a director is a simplistic and slightly pretentious look at what it means to be an adult, but it is also witty, engaging and comfortingly familiar.