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Liberal Arts

2012 | 97 min | Not rated | 2.39:1

Liberal Arts


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Theatrical release date

 14 September, 2012
 05 October, 2012

Country of origin

 United States

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Liberal Arts Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, September 20, 2012

Last year, writer/director/actor Josh Radnor made a small but impressive debut with “happythankyoumoreplease,” a precious title for sure, but a workably anxious creation dedicated to the collisions of life. Squeezing out a second picture between seasons at his day job, acting on the sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” Radnor returns with “Liberal Arts,” a small-scale character piece that shows impressive growth in directorial confidence and screenwriting nuance. Despite its potentially formulaic collegiate setting, the helmer captures a full sense of thought and desire in work that’s undeniably human, striving to make a movie about whirring minds and anxious souls, not content to assemble a neurotic collection of intellectuals burning through literary references while swigging coffee.

Frustrated with his time as a college admissions advisor in New York City, 35-year-old Jesse (Josh Radnor) jumps at the invitation to join Peter (Richard Jenkins), one of his favorite professors, for a retirement party at Kenyon College in Ohio. Expecting a weekend of memories and polite chit-chat in the blessed Midwest expanse, Jesse is instead unnerved when introduced to Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a 19-year-old student who’s completely charmed by the visitor, working to arrange future meetings to feel out their chemistry. While the age difference is unsettling to Jesse, he continues to see Zibby, finding the young woman to be a potent time machine to his past life as a student, also rendered woozy by her romantic interest. As the year passes, the two remain in touch, also finding Jesse drawn to the plight of Dean (John Magro), an emotionally unstable young man finding the experience of his secondary education overwhelming.

Working a Woody Allen mood without the intensive idiosyncrasy, Radnor keeps “Liberal Arts” on an even pace of engagement, using Jesse’s return to campus life as a way to explore the lives of others, collecting a series of interesting, wounded characters that maintain the pace of the feature superbly. Although there are moments of comedy in the folds of the writing, “Liberal Arts” retains a concentration on the movement of life, following the personalities as they confront age differences and the fleeting feeling of youth, a process perverted on a college campus, where the years pass, yet the students remain fixed in a place of adolescent development, making everything outside the tight social circle feel ancient by comparison. Instead of dissecting beer-gulping party life and the blisters of naiveté, the picture moves beyond the norm to expose the defenselessness of those dealing with the severity of their years, with romance, employment, and friendship confusing an already turbulent situation.

There’s Jesse, who’s troubled by his attraction to Zibby, a younger woman with remarkable intelligence and poise, yet remains fixated on the pursuits of her generation, including adoration of the “Twilight” novels, which drives the thirtysomething man crazy, forcing him to read the book to understand her perspective (his venomous reaction is interesting considering that “Twilight” star Elizabeth Reaser has a small supporting role in the movie). They bond over easy conversation, the enlightenment of classical music, and a mutual generational curiosity, though Jesse is wary of taking matters into a sexual realm despite his appreciation of the awkward seduction. Peter is faced with a retirement he doesn’t want, panicking about obsolescence as his years teaching young minds has drawn to a close, leaving him with nothing to look forward to. For Dean, the pains of adulthood are too much to bear, with a full immersion into a study of suicidal authors and a friendless existence guiding him to a pointless hopelessness that Jesse recognizes, using his wisdom to reassure the young man that darkness is not the only option.

Radnor doesn’t labor over the material, instead picking scenes of confession and confrontation that illuminate the characters organically, finding a human tone to the picture. There’s comedic discomfort, especially with Jesse’s reintroduction to college life (including dorm room politics and disappointing food options), yet “Liberal Arts” captures intimacy superbly, studying this humiliation and confusion with a lovely script that pays attention to language and hesitation. The direction also makes smart use out of the campus setting, idealizing the educational liberation with subtle autumnal encouragement.

Impressively, Radnor sticks his landing, dishing up a few behavioral escalations that threaten to overwhelm the effort, yet the resolutions are genuine, keeping to a tone of personal connection that’s preferable to hysterics. “Liberal Arts” doesn’t reach for a thunderous encapsulation of distress, it merely articulates minor relationship beats and fears of aging, gathering this anxiety in a searching manner that creates a fascinating picture softened by striking vulnerability.

Starring: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, Elizabeth Reaser, John Magaro
Director: Josh Radnor

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