Sometimes it’s the movies you decide to watch at random that end up surprising you the most A film directed and written by Josh Radnor, Ted Moseby from How I Met Your Mother, I was shocked at how much I enjoyed Liberal Arts. The film was released On Demand the same day is was released in theaters and for the first time in my life, I took advantage of it. Liberal Arts features a charmingly depressing cast (how’s that for an oxymoron) and an oddly compelling plot driven by the arguably inappropriate relationships that form between the characters. As the plot unfolds and relationships evolve, it becomes clear that this is a film about finding your place in the world.
The film focuses on literature major Jesse Fisher (Josh Radnor) who now works admissions for a college in New York City. A down on his luck, lonely man, Jesse is rarely on camera without a book and seems to use reading to shield himself from the real world. When his favorite Professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins) calls to invite Jesse to his retirement dinner, Jesse rents a car and heads back to his alma Mater. Spending a weekend there, Jesse meets three people. The first is Zibby (Elizabeth Olson), a current student whose parents are friend of Professor Hoberg. Despite their age difference, Jesse is thirty something while Zibby is a young college student, a spark ignites between them that drives the rest of the plot. Jesse also meets a student Dean (John Magaro) who does not have many friends after a manic episode a year ago. Finally Jesse meets Nat (Zac Efron) a hippy-ish non student that hangs around campus for no reason.
The film focuses mainly on the relationship that forms between Zibby and Jesse. After meeting and having a coffee date, the two are inexplicably drawn to one another, setting up a system of sending hand written letters to one another. Jesse begins to visit Zibby and their relationship grows until their age difference gets in the way. After a fight, Jesse goes to a bar where he meets and sleeps with one of his old professors, Judith Fairfield (Allison Janney). Another fight occurs, emphasizing yet again the age difference between the two and reversing Jesse’s role. First he was the older in the relationship, then was the young (though only for a night) and he got hurt both times. While all of this happens, Jesse sees Nat a number of times, laughing at Nat’s odd view on life but learning from it at the same time. Jesse also tries to form a bond with the depressed Dean, trying to give the boy a lifeline when it seems that he has none.
As I said earlier, this film is about fining where you belong. Jesse works his way through an odd relationship only to learn, with Zibby’s help, to open his eyes and look at the world around him. Professor Hoberg attempts to deal with retirement, realizing he may not be ready to carve out a new place in the world. Dean is just attempting to find a place where he feels comfortable and loved. Zibby wants and thirsts for a relationship she cannot find in college but may not be ready for one. She needs to figure out what she wants and find a relationship she can thrive in.
This film surprised me on a number of different levels. I honestly couldn’t believe that Josh Radnor directed and wrote this film. The directing was well done. It wasn’t anything mind blowing but it certainly showed Radnor has some skill with the camera. What I was more impressed with from Radnor was the writing, specifically the character development. For two examples I would like to specifically reference two characters. The first is Professor Peter Hoberg. Richard Jenkins, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors, is not on screen often but when he is, we have to watch his character go from an overdone college professor to a man who is terrified of what he is going to do without his job. Josh Radnor’s own character, Jesse, was a part of one scene that in my opinion completely changed his character. For the first couple scenes in the film, Jesse seems to be a bumbling dork that does not have the best social or vocal skills. I began to doubt that the character could graduate from College with any form of an English degree. Then came the scene where Jesse wrote his first letter to Zibby. Read in a voiceover, the audience gets to see how Jesse really sees things, in eloquent burst of analytic prose. Through his writing and acting, Radnor gave his characters a number of layers that were revealed throughout the film.
I was very pleased with this film. I thought the writing was great and Radnor did a good job directing. The performances were all brilliant, with each actor or actress giving their respective character a number of different surprising layers. I was shocked by the charming performance Elizabeth Olson gave, making me consider her a better actress than both her sisters in just one film. I give this film a 7 out of 10. It is an interesting, though provoking film that is a lot of fun to watch.