Josh Radnor // 2012 // 97 mins
Jesse is a thirty-five year old admissions officer at a New York college, recently single and feeling uninspired in his life. When he gets an invitation to a retirement event for one of his favourite college professors Jesse returns to his old college town and reminisces about his younger days, a time when he was passionate and the future seemed filled with opportunity. While there he meets Zibby; beautiful, nineteen and full of life, and the two begin a romance that reinvigorates Jesse and helps them both to mature and grow in unexpected ways.
Liberal Arts, the second directorial effort of actor/writer Josh Radnor, is a charming portrayal of growing older and yearning for the fervour we once had. Radnor himself is a great lead, slightly channeling the idealistic nature of his popular Ted Mosby character from How I Met Your Mother, but feeling like a more mature, grounded version. The radiant Elizabeth Olsen is a delight as Zibby, her energy and vibrancy are palpable and the chemistry she shares with Radnor makes their relationship all the more convincing. Zibby as a character is one of the films greatest triumphs by defying the expectations that are attached to her familiar character-type. Radnor has written a young woman who, while conforming to the tropes of being pretty, perky and slightly naive, is strong-willed, intelligent and offers just as much enlightenment for Jesse as he does for her. The two share a strong compatibility and enjoy debates about literature and passionate discourses about classical music, the older man/younger woman cliché is somewhat subverted through their relationship being grounded in something more than a physical attraction and it is an enjoyable relationship to follow, one that never feels forced and is filled with small recognisable moments of intimacy.
Radnor has surrounded himself with a host of great talents who all do well in enhancing their respective scenes, but never overpowering or distracting from the central story. Richard Jenkins as the former professor gets his own narrative arc that compliments Jesse's, as a man struggling to come to terms with his imminent retirement. He is often funny, but is exceptional in the scenes in which he displays the more fragile side of a man who is not ready to move on with his life. Allison Janney brings her expected levels of sass and humour as another of Jesse's former professors, while John Magaro impresses in his few fleeting scenes, through which we see a darker side to the optimistic collegiate lifestyle that Jesse remembers. The real surprise here though is Zac Efron who turns in probably his best performance to date as Nat, a free-spirit drifter that Jesse encounters during his visits to the college. Nat is a daring character to inject into a film that generally strives for a more dramatic tone, but thanks to some beautifully written exchanges and Efron's wonderful, eccentric presence he works extremely well at enhancing both the comedic and contemplative elements of the plot.
The film itself, in both themes and style, feels evocative of the work of Woody Allen, from the discussions and critiques of popular culture to the unconventional romance to the way in which it celebrates and admires the city of New York. There are certainly much worse places to get your inspiration than Mr. Allen and Radnor proves that his winning formula is still as effective as ever. Risks are taken with the story as it fails to meet all of the expectations of a conventional, modern rom-com, and the film feels much richer for it. These characters, and the decisions that they make, feel honest and not as though they are merely being steered towards the clichéd happy ending we have come to expect. Radnor is now two for two with his directorial features and I hope that there is plenty more to come from him in the future, Liberal Arts is a refreshing, enjoyable tryst and a realistic look at life after the endless possibilities of college.