Liberal Arts is the bittersweet story of 30-something admissions tutor, Jesse Fisher, who lives in New York whilst his heart is stuck in Kenyon College, Ohio.
Jesse’s nostalgia for his university days leads him back to his alma mater where he falls for a pretty girl, has an existential crisis and does whatever else you expect from an indie comedy.
Jesse is played by the film’s writer and director, Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother), and although his artistic choices are relatively safe, the film is undoubtedly proof of his film-making potential.
Liberal Arts also strikes casting gold. Zac Efron’s role as a pseudo-stoner is so ridiculous that he somehow manages to pull it off, but it is the incomparable Allison Janney’s performance as a jaded English professor with a Ph.D. in acrimonious wit that is the stand-out highlight of the film.
The film’s key asset, however, is its leading lady. Elizabeth Olsen, the Olsen sister with the lowest profile but the most talent, has the perfect amount of Zooey Deschanel branded whimsy; her performance is both charming and genuine and it confirms Olsen as one to watch for the future.
She plays Zibby (not to be confused with the character from The Magic Roundabout), a college freshman who epitomises Jesse’s nostalgia. Despite the age gap, the two begin an unconventional love affair documented through handwritten letters and classical music induced epiphanies (a sequence that is perhaps too pretentious for its own good) but it is destined to be short-lived.
Jesse never strays too far from Radnor’s sitcom alter ego – despite the addition of a beard – but his boyish romanticism is contagious. At one point we are asked: “Why do I like this guy so much?” Olsen simply replies: “Because he’s likeable,” and this explains why Liberal Arts captures your interest in spite of its confused narrative.
Radnor’s earnest portrayal of a teenager stuck in a grown man’s body also means that the supposed May to December aspect of Zibby and Jesse’s romance becomes more like May to mid-September.
Generally, the film does deal with notions of age and those coming to terms with it exceptionally well. Surrounded by characters experiencing mid-life crises, the 19-year-old Zibby is arguably the only one who acts her age – her acceptance of the aging process highlights her incompatibility with Jesse.
Liberal Arts could be accused of teetering on the edge of smugness and is often too preoccupied with convincing the audience of its intelligence, instead of fully developing the plot.
But the film, like its protagonist, is so harmlessly endearing that you manage to either dismiss or embrace its brief moments of pretentiousness. A (500) Days of Summer with more likeable characters, Liberal Arts’ sentimentality will strike a chord with many audiences and its attempt at doing something slightly different with the indie film formula is to be admired.
Watch the trailer: