Liberal Arts ****
Director: Josh Radnor
Starring: Josh Radnor Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins and Zac Efron
ROMANTICISING youth and an inability to enjoy the present are the key aspects of Josh Radnor’s surprisingly uplifting feature, Liberal Arts, certificate 15.
Radnor, who will be Familiar to many as Ted Mosby from American Si-com, How I Met Your Mother, wrote, directed and stars in the film. Following up his 2010 directorial debut, Happythankyoumoreplease, with this indie, crowd-pleaser.
The American actor plays, Jesse Fisher, a perpetual man-child, who at 35 is struggling to adjust to life as an adult. When he accepts an invitation to return to his old college, Jesse unwittingly sets out on a journey that will ultimately see his character grow and accept that his youthful days are behind him.
Upon his return he develops a strong connection with the young college student, Zibby, played by Elizabeth Olsen. At first apprehensive, over the age difference, he slowly develops a relationship with the young student.
Their blossoming relationship plays out at first, like a romantic love story from classical fiction, as they commune via a series of hand-written letters, discussing various topics such as classical musical. One comic scene sees Jessie’s character doing the maths on their 16 year age age difference, as he contemplates taking things further.
Despite the age difference between the two central characters, the feature never treats the relationship between the two with a seedy or leering eye, instead playing out as a meeting of minds between a seemingly advanced teenage girl and an emotionally stunted 35 year old man. In the hands of a different director this feature, might have played out much differently.
Olsen is one of the hottest properties in Hollywood right now, after making her breakthrough in the excellent 2011 feature, Martha Marcy May Marlene. She makes the most of a rather underdeveloped role.
Her character believes she is more advanced than her fellow peers, finding herself attracted to Radnor’s older, literary loving character. At one point she naively proclaims: “If we’d went to college at the same time, we would have been great friends.”
The statement hints, that behind her clever and witty characterises, there is a naive young woman. As Jessie gets to know her better, he too begins to realise this, with things coming to a head over a heated discussion on the literacy merit of a certain vampire series of novels.
The feature’s greatest strength is its strong cast. Both Radnor and Olsen are excellent, but the supporting cast, in particular, Richard Jenkins is excellent. Jenkins’ character, the retiring professor Peter Hoberg, can’t wait to retire and escape what he perceives to be the prison of his employment.
But no sooner has he made his decision to retire, than he begins to regret it, finding the prospect of such a drastic change to his day to day life too unsettling. It would have been nice to have seen his story developed more, but doing so would have taken away from the feature’s central storyline.
Poignantly, he tells Jesse:” Since I’ve been 19, I’ve felt like I was 19, as I’ve got older I still felt the same, But I just have to remind myself I’m not 19 anymore.” It’s a touching moment in the feature that helps Jessie decide what to do.
One of the biggest surprises was the cameo performance by Zac Efron. The young actor continues to prove there’s more to him than just his dancing ability. Playing Nat, whose character becomes like a spiritual guru to Jesse, showing up briefly at important moments within the feature, to help him make important decisions. Comically at one point Jessie even asks Nat, if he’s even real?
There are moments within the film that simply didn’t work, Jessie’s one night stand with his old romantics teacher, might have served a point within the feature’s narrative of the feature, but just didn’t work.
The same can be said about Jessie’s relationship with the troubled, manic depressive student, Dean, played by John Magaro. Despite only having a few chance encounters the two develop a strong friendship, that just felt too cinematically cliché, in my opinion.
Some viewers might be left a little underwhelmed by the feature, with some characters underdeveloped and others simply following the cliché indie movie formula. But for me, I found it touching, charming and funny, without ever becoming too sickly sweet and I would definitely recommend it.
Review By William McClean