Radnor has crafted a very poignant film about accepting who you are at every stage in your life.
Jesse Fisher (Josh Radnor) affectionately looks back at his time as an undergraduate at a small liberal arts college as the best period of his life. He’s now 35, a disillusioned college admissions officer, and newly single. Radnor, who wrote and directed Liberal Arts, describes his second directorial effort as “at once love letter to a liberal arts education and [a] recognition of its limits.” Best known from the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, Radnor has crafted a very poignant film about accepting who you are at every stage in your life, whether you’re an undergraduate, an adult out in the real world, or someone preparing for retirement.
Jesse’s real troubles start when he is invited back to his alma mater by Professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), his favorite professor and still a close friend. Hoberg is being honored at a retirement party and he’d like at least one former student there to say something nice. Jesse can’t wait to leave New York City and practically races across the country to the small Ohio town where the college is located. Once on campus, Jesse beams with excitement and happiness, re-energized by the campus and the memories of having his whole life ahead of him.
Before the retirement ceremony, Jesse meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a student at the college and the daughter of two of Peter’s friends. Zibby is jovial, upbeat, and full of life. Essentially, she is what Jesse was at her age, and the opposite of what he is now. The two spend some time together before Jesse heads back to New York, but they soon begin exchanging letters. When Jesse goes back to visit Zibby, their feelings for each other are undeniable. Still, Jesse knows what he is doing is wrong, as evidenced by a scolding from Peter when he catches them together.
While his first outing as writer/director (the indie Happythankyoumoreplease) was met with mixed feelings from critics, it showed that Radnor’s true talents may lie behind the camera as opposed to in front of it. Liberal Arts is indeed a love letter to college, that special time in life when it seems like every door is open. Jesse yearns to be an undergrad again, but his memories are shaded by the ignorance of youth that can be so overwhelming. Radnor’s talents as a writer are much better polished than his skills as a director, but that is likely to change with more experience. Jesse and Zibby’s conversations feel real and honest, two variables sorely lacking in most filmmaking today.
While the film centers on Jesse and Zibby’s relationships, Jesse’s true maturation comes from the two other friendships he stumbles into while on campus. Nat (Zac Efron) is an armchair philosopher who is either brilliant and insightful or really stoned. His “one with the universe” attitude and relaxed approach to reality strike a chord with Jesse, whose pessimism has prevented him from truly living his life. Jesse also tries to become a mentor/big brother figure to Dean (John Magaro), an extremely intelligent but disturbed young man who is battling serious depression. Dean’s struggle makes Jesse realize that, for some, college isn’t that great at all.
Radnor has gathered a wonderful cast, but it is Olsen who stands out as Zibby, a young woman much more advanced than the children that surround her. Olsen is funny, revealing, heartbreaking, and lovable. It is a magnificent performance that few actors could achieve, and more than enough reason to watch Liberal Arts. | Matthew Newlin