Liberal Arts

WRITTEN BY: Josh Radnor
DIRECTED BY: Josh Radnor
STARRING: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, John Magaro
RATING: 3.5 stars

Liberal Arts is a love story between two unlikely people who not so much fall in love with each other, but rather fall in love with each other's intellect. They share a love of classical music and literature. One is on the cusp of growing up and the other is trying to ignore the fact that he should be a grown up. As with any pseudo-intellectual film, parts come off as pretentious, but Josh Radnor, of How I Met Your Mother fame, has written, directed, co-produced and starred in a film that is essentially poignant, sincere, witty and almost whimsical. There are problems with the story, but it's such a sweet film and an interesting take on the coming of age concept that you can almost forgive its flaws.

Jesse Fisher (Radnor) is a 35-year-old college admissions officer in New York who returns to his old college in Ohio to celebrate the retirement of his favourite professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins). Jesse has a romantic view of how college was and can't seem to move on. While there, he meets a 19-year-old undergraduate named Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) and the two hit it off. As their weekend together draws to a close, Zibby makes Jesse a CD of classical music and they soon begin writing letters to each other. Eventually, a romance blossoms despite Jesse's better judgement regarding their age difference.

Aside from the romance, the restriction of age is a central theme of the story. Jesse obsesses about the age difference between him and Zibby, while her youth means Zibby still has no idea how to live beyond the walls of her college grounds. Meanwhile, Professor Hoberg is worried that his decision to retire means he's getting too old and doesn't know what to do with himself. He says to Jesse that no one feels like an adult and everyone wants to feel like they are 19 forever. It's a bitter-sweet examination of age.

The film references everything from Beethoven to Chaucer. There are also some not so subtle references to David Foster Wallaces' Infinite Jest and even Stephenie Meyers' Twilight series as the protagonists debate taste. It's a very funny scene and the kind of pretentious debate that book geeks, like me, will enjoy. You almost want to join their conversation. I also liked the scene in which Jesse literally does the maths on a notepad working out their age gap. There is also some great cinematography and beautiful montages of New York and the university campus with classical music playing in the background. It helps create that whimsical feeling.

Jesse is only slightly similar to Radnor's famous character on How I Met Your Mother. Nonetheless, he gives a strong performance and was removed enough that I never felt like I was watching Ted Moseby. Olsen gives another powerful performance, following on from Martha Marcy May Marlene. In many ways, her character is wise and intellectual beyond her years, until her teenage breakdown and naivety are revealed. Zac Efron does not have billing in the film but still has a memorable role. In fact, it is my favourite Efron performance. His character, Nat, is sort of a hippie who keeps bumping into Jesse late at night on the campus grounds and is very funny. Allison Janney barely utters a word until her final two scenes but she almost steals the film. She's wonderfully hilarious as a cold-hearted and bitter professor of English literature. Jenkins is also emotive and John Magaro portrays a troubled, young literature lover very well.

Liberal Arts is a cute independent film full of heart. It's worth a look.