Josh Radnor’s second directorial effort, Liberal Arts, is a pleasant movie, full of warm and intriguing personalities, and set mostly in the green spaces of a small liberal arts college. It is there that our protagonist, Jesse Fisher (Radnor), meets a 19-year-old college student and is forced, for maybe the first time, to confront his age and his outlook, as well as who he wants to be.
In an opening montage that’s choppily cut, we learn Jesse isn’t the happiest of individuals. He’s 35 and is employed in an admissions office at a school in New York, a job that he finds tedious. He’s also recently broken up with his girlfriend. However, a chance trip to visit an old college professor (Richard Jenkins) perks Jesse up a little bit, and when he reaches his old college campus, he fits right into the fiber of the old buildings and the green lawns.
Jesse has a deep sense of nostalgia for his alma mater; he enjoys chatting up the students on campus and wandering around, taking in the sites and scenery. He has a way with connecting philosophy and literature, and he’s in his element when talking to sophomore Dean (John Magaro) and another sophomore, Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), whom he develops a deeper connection with. After one magical weekend, life takes Jesse back to New York, but he can’t get Zibby out of his mind, and she can’t keep him out, either.
For a long time, I thought Jesse’s trip would bring him full circle with the college aspect, forcing him to rethink his life and become a college professor, which his brain is absolutely tuned for. Instead, the film treks through a tale of mental exploration, which helps Jesse to figure out how he can maintain a positive and idealist attitude, even if he is far removed from the college classes that made such a deep impression on his memory and thought processes. He’s helped in this re-evaluting of his attitude by several chance encounters with the Baja hoodie-wearing Nat, played outlandishly by Zac Efron. While these scenes help the story move forward, they feel a bit gimmicky in an otherwise tight film.
Which brings us to the issue of Zibby and Jesse and their potential as a couple, which seems to plague Jesse more than it does Zibby, and rightfully so. While Zibby is of age, she’s still in college and the difference seems like a daunting precipice instead of a small bump in their relationship. That’s a difficult connection to cultivate without coming across as distasteful onscreen, but even such tough-to-navigate territory is handled capably in Liberal Arts.
Radnor is a tryer as a filmmaking. He isn’t scared to offer complete silence on a screen when Jesse humorously does some math to figure out the age difference with Zibby and what that might mean later on. At one point, he even uses an epistolary as a narrative device, and while I initially assumed the segment would break the flow of the narrative, it was actually endearing, and a great way to show a relationship as it was being built.
The fresh setting—at Kenyon College in Ohio—helps Liberal Arts to avoid a lot of low budget indie traps, and the characters feel genuine, even if the dialogue isn’t always as spectacular as it could be. In short, Liberal Arts is a pleasant little ride that may tap a bit of nostalgia that we never knew we had within us. It may not go down in history as a great film or even in Radnor’s directorial catalog as his best, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
Liberal Arts comes with a nice little set of bonus features, thanks to some lengthy deleted scenes. We get to see Jesse and his initial breakup, and we see how he deals with a friend who is having trouble moving forward with his life, as well. Further scenes show some moments between Zibby and Jesse and a couple of the college professors. All of these should help us to understand the character's motivations a bit more.
A featurette follows that is almost more of a preview, but it does include a few behind-the-scenes shots of Radnor directing and Olsen talking about Radnor’s multitude of skills on set. Finally, the actual trailer is available for the flick. It’s not a ton of stuff, but I appreciate the music and the thought put into the menu page and the disc is easy to navigate. There’s enough with the Liberal Arts set to be able to appreciate purchasing it.