Movie Review: Liberal Arts (2012)

Written and Directed by: Josh Radnor

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 97 minutes

Cast:

Josh Radnor as Jesse Fisher

Richard Jenkins as Professor Peter Hoberg

Elizabeth Olsen as Zibby

Allison Janney as Professor Judith Fairfield

John Magaro as Dean

Elizabeth Reaser as Ana

Zac Effron as Nat

Jesse Fisher is a disillusioned 35 year old single guy living and working in NYC when an old professor calls to invite him to his retirement party. And so begins "Liberal Arts", a small indie film from Josh Radnor. Jesse returns to his alma mater and describes it as feeling like he's "visiting an ex-girlfriend". He is immediately immersed in nostalgia for his college days, walking the campus and falling onto the grassy quad. While there, he is introduced to a 19 year old coed, Zibby. There is an instant connection between the two. It is described perfectly when Jesse asks Zibby if they connect because he is stunted or because she is advanced. The answer is a little bit of both. Their relationship takes an old-school turn when Zibby makes Jesse a "mixed tape" of classical music from one of her classes, and they begin a correspondence of long letters waxing philosophical about how listening to the music suddenly changes  New York into a city filled with beautiful, smiling, friendly faces. 

As the relationship progresses, Jesse returns to the college to visit Zibby, and things become complicated. Both of them must confront the 16 year age difference and decide whether or not it makes sense for them to be together. While Zibby struggles to become an adult, Jesse finds himself longing for his college days, even reconnecting with his Romantic Lit professor with whom he has a lingering crush (Fairfield). He finds that the things that attracted him to her (her confidence and strength) have now turned her into a hardened, bitter woman.

Meanwhile, Jesse meets a troubled, young student named Dean. Dean is recovering from his first manic episode and soon finds himself in the middle of a deep depression. Jesse becomes a touchstone for him, perhaps because Dean reminds Jesse a little of his younger self, taking things a little too seriously.

Jesse's old professor, Peter Hoberg, is at a different stage in his life, dealing with his impending retirement. Looking back over his life, he finds himself alone and unhappy. Even though he feels young inside, he has become an old man with nothing to show for it. After 37 years on the job, the college goes on without him as if he were never there.

And finally there is Nat, a philosophical young man that Jesse meets on a park bench. Nat is prescient and full of sage advice, causing Jesse at one point to question whether or not Nat even really exists. I was asking the same thing and I'm quite sure he's not.

Liberal Arts is a quiet, contemplative movie that deals with a lot of common issues. Most of us look back on our college days with longing. That was the last time we were able to be young and free. We were able to explore different things to find out more about ourselves without looking foolish. But we all grow up and only when we come to terms with what that means and decide to embrace our maturity instead of fighting it. 

The performances in this film are great. Josh Radnor is adorable, and Elizabeth Olsen is ageless. Richard Jenkins is perfect as the aging hipster professor, and Allison Janney is spot on as the bitter, feminist Romantic Lit professor. But to me, the most surprising performance was from Zac Effron. He steals each scene that he's in and doesn't come off as goofy or contrived.

Check it out on iTunes here 

Liberal Arts

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