Recently dumped, jaded college advisor Jesse (Radnor) returns to Kenyon, his alma mater, to give a speech for his retiring professor, Peter (Jenkins). Re-awakened by academia, he pines to return to Kenyon, a feeling compounded when he meets student Zibby (Olsen).
This year is turning out to be a banner one for the admittedly niche genre of erudite campus movies. Following on from Whit Stillman’s droll, dry, impeccably turned-out Damsels In Distress, Liberal Arts equally eschews foam parties and whipped-cream bikinis for something more thoughtful. Best known as How I Met Your Mother’s Ted, Josh Radnor has served up food for the mind and fuel for the soul.
At its core, Liberal Arts is about the coming together of Radnor’s listless thirtysomething Jesse and Elizabeth Olsen’s sassy 19-year-old, Zibby. They initially walk and talk, then swap classical music mix-tapes and long, handwritten letters, two old souls happy to find each other. Beautifully evinced, it neatly sketches a relationship that is at once light and easygoing but at the same time all-consuming, Radnor enriching the affability of his How I Met Your Mother persona with an intellectual curiosity, Olsen staying just the right side of precocious, a wise head on young shoulders, perky, angsty, believable.
Around the central couple, Radnor the writer-director assembles a colourful gallery of student bodies: the ever-reliable Richard Jenkins as a reluctant retiree with terrible taste in shirts; the equally ever-reliable Allison Janney as Jesse’s cynical, highly sexed Lit professor who adds an earthy touch amid the film’s higher thinking; a surprisingly hilarious Zac Efron as a self-styled slacker student shaman bestowing Jesse with untold aphorisms.
As a filmmaker, Radnor errs on the middlebrow, playing safe in some of both his narrative and directorial choices. But what Liberal Arts is really good at is evoking the romantic notion of university life, where the air is seemingly thick with possibility, where Big Ideas make up everyday conversation and nothing is more important than the book you’ve just read that has changed your life. But it is also a movie wise enough to know that, at some point, you have to graduate to the big, wide world.
It lacks filmmaking fireworks but Liberal Arts is a B+ for Josh Radnor: strong writing, great performances (Olsen is the real deal) and a touching, upbeat tale for the big-brained and big-hearted.