Liberal Arts, at first glance another charming love story, examines difficult topics of sentimentality and the reality of life. Writer/director/actor Josh Radnor crafted a well-written screenplay with relatable and well-acted characters. Jesse Fisher (Radnor), now thirteen years removed from college, returns to his alma mater for the retirement reception of his beloved professor, Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins). He is reinvigorated by his memories of the unlimited opportunity offered by the college experience. He falls for Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a sophomore at the unnamed college, and is forced to grapple with the complexities of their sixteen-year age difference.
This movie initially seems like the standard love story we’ve heard before—boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. But Radnor takes the film in an unexpected direction, exploring the divide between nostalgics and cynics. There’s Jesse, who wishes he was back at college, a place of infinite potential. There’s Hoberg, who feels it’s time to leave, but soon realizes that teaching is the only thing that keeps him young. But then there are people who don’t love college or want to be there, like Professor Judith Fairfield (Allison Janney), Jesse’s adored Romantic poetry teacher who has nurtured an ironically “un-Romantic” pessimism, and Dean (John Magaro), a student who wants college to end so he can move on.
Radnor masterfully weaves these storylines together, making the audience contemplate such issues as appreciation of the here and now and reminiscence of the glory days. The vagueness of some plot devices, especially the nameless school, makes the film relatable to all. He delves into the significance of age difference, questioning the point at which it becomes inappropriate to love someone. The film is well-stocked with memorable one-liners, and humor is well-appropriated. Radnor includes countless details that make the settings authentic, such as Zibby’s too-often sexiled roommate or Hoberg’s classic, ugly, college-professorial shirts.
The actors bring already well-wrought characters to life. Olsen is fantastic enough to make us forget about her washed-up sisters, and she enriches her character with believable mannerisms. Janney’s portrayal of an unhappy, middle-aged professor establishes a healthy dose of hatred towards her character. Zac Efron brilliantly and humorously reveals the complexities of Nat, a pot-smoking, philosophizing spirit-guide for the protagonist.
Liberal Arts’ unexpected turns and departure from rom-com standards made me fall in love with the film. The plot successfully materializes a major theme, entrenching Radnor’s motifs in the minds of the viewers. The audience falls in love with relatable characters, and a complex ending spurs a cathartic release of both sadness and joy. Liberal Arts charmingly, philosophically and beautifully explores life, and is especially relevant as we enter and depart from Duke.