Title: Liberal Arts
Director: Josh Radnor
Starring: Josh Radnor (TV’s ‘How I Met Your Mother’), Elizabeth Olsen (‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’), Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney and Zac Efron
People often have memories of a particular time period in their lives that they often look back at with nostalgia, and remember them with an elevated admiration that they’re not worthy of receiving. That’s certainly the case amongst the main characters in the new comedy-drama ‘Liberal Arts,’ which is the directorial and writing follow up to actor Josh Radnor’s helming and script debut, the 2010 comedy-drama-romance ‘Happythankyoumoreplease.’ ‘Liberal Arts’ is a meaningful, thought-provoking look into how people of all ages continuously look for acceptance, the meaning of their life and how to re-live the most memorable and best days of their lives.
‘Liberal Art’s follows newly single Jesse Fisher (played by Radnor), a university admission counselor in his mid-thirties living in New York City. He returns to his Ohio alma mater for a retirement dinner for his favorite English professor, Peter Hoburg (portrayed by Richard Jenkins). While back on campus, Jesse has a chance meeting with 19-year-old Zibby (played by Elizabeth Olsen), a precocious undergrad who loves classical music, improv and the ‘Twilight’ books.
Meeting Zibby awakens long-dormant feelings of possibility and connection in Jesse, as the duo strikes up a long-distance romance. Although Zibby is mature behind her years, the large age difference between the two heavily weighs on Jesse’s conscience. As he debates starting a relationship with Libby, Jesse becomes torn between moving forward in life and holding on to the memories of his own unforgettable undergraduate career. His life is also put into prospective after he meets upbeat party animal Nat (portrayed by Zac Efron); depressed student Dean (played by John Magaro) and his former, feisty Romantics professor, Judith Fairfield (portrayed by Allison Janney).
Radnor scripted a heart-felt love letter to many people’s liberal arts college education with his second comedy-drama. He also created a relatable main character in Jesse, who takes over a decade to realize that being stuck in his academic ways is just holding him back. The 35-year-old Jesse undergoes an important, meaningful journey throughout the course of ‘Liberal Arts,’ leading him to realize that his mind is too over-developed and mature to remain in the college student lifestyle. His emotional journey also makes him realize that his nostalgic feelings and longing for a simpler time is holding him back from enjoying his adult life.
Once Jesse begins his relationship with Libby and starts to question whether their connection is morally acceptable, he also emotionally starts to ponder why he’s still stuck in the past. Radnor evolves Jesse into a maturing, socially conscious adult who realizes that he’ll only find liberating and meaningful relationships with people his own age. The actor even smartly made his ever-developing character start to question why he continues to remain a college admissions counselor, even though he doesn’t like the work, and realizes that he keeps the job just to stay connected with his past. Jesse begins to yearn for more meaningful work in order to continue growing as an adult.
Jesse understandably connects so easily with Libby because since he graduated from college, he’s had a strong desire to go back to that time. Zibby not only reminds Jesse of the moments of encountering new books and thoughts, but also intriguingly challenges him to question the limiting ideas he has so strongly held onto since his own college days. For example, Zibby is a perfect example of her generation reading and enjoying books just for their entertainment value. Jesse, meanwhile, holds onto this old idea that books are solely meant to be used to discover new information and lead to debates on societal issues. Olsen’s powerful performance Zibby in the scenes when she genuinely questions Jesse’s ideas on books shuts down his argument that not everyone has to be critical of what they read and learn.
While ‘Liberal Arts’ perfectly showcases sophomore Zibby as being trapped between being an energetic young adult and an old, mature soul, Jenkins’ portrayal of Professor Hoberg also provokes thoughts about what it means to truly grow older. The professor is the perfect example of someone who’s desperately trying to stay connected with his youth, as he hesitantly transitions from working life to the supposedly golden years of retirement. As much as Professor Hoberg complains about attending faculty meetings and teaching the same material for the past 35 years, he truly loved his life at the college and the feeling of youth he held onto while being a teacher to 19-year-old students. As he faces his pending retirement, he, like Jesse, is also hesitant to fully move into the next stages of adulthood; he just wants to rewind time and re-live his teaching days.
‘Liberal Arts’ is a touching, sentimental look into how every generation longs to be a different age; like Zibby, students can’t wait to finish school and truly embrace life and adulthood, while working adults like Jesse and Professor Hoberg romanticize the past and wish to once again experience their younger glory days. The unexpected encounters between Jesse and his new, younger love interest, as well as his reconnection with his former professor who’s about to retire, make everyone realize how truly emotionally vulnerable they really are. The three characters are all experiencing a true identity crisis over the course of the film, and their interactions with each other make them all truly accept stepping fully into adulthood.
Written by: Karen Benardello