Review: Liberal Arts (Radnor, 2012)

As most ‘college experience’ films go, this is one to watch. Josh Radnor, (Ted from How I Met Your Mother), wrote, directed and starred in Liberal Arts. Radnor plays ‘Jesse’, embarking on a trip back to college for the retirement of his most loved and respected professor, and discovers he has not let go of his youth; trying to recapture it through a love affair with 19 year old Zibby. 

The small indie film was first shown at the infamous Sundance festival in Utah way back in January, then was a front runner at the first ever UK Sundance festival, and now, ten months on from its première  it has been given a wider release, though still fairly limited. Although it seems like a sweet, typical romcom, Liberal Arts is clever, witty and well educated; constantly referencing poetry, literature and music. The Twilight series is ripped apart, as a metaphor for modern literature being less accepted as the old works and classics, whereas David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, though unnamed, has a large impact on both Jesse and another college student who cannot wait to start living in the real world.

Jesse (Josh Radnor, How I Met Your Mother) and Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene) don’t let age stand in their way.

Josh Radnor plays his typical ‘Ted’ character; romantic, naive, and fascinated by the words of others rather than the actions of people around him. Jesse is constantly spotted reading and walking, ignoring what goes on around him, but through his love of literature, he is able to connect with so many of the other characters. The main female lead; Elizabeth Olsen, indie darling and sister to the Olsen twins, plays the manic pixie dream girl stereotype superbly, seemingly wiser than her age, helping the main character realise his potential, but never really having her own life or story. Although this character is necessary in most indie films, Liberal Arts allows for other female characters to have identities and reason. The film is dotted with cameos from Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney and Elizabeth Reaser, but it is Zac Efron, playing against his pretty boy type as a hippie idealist that Jesse suggests is a figment of his imagination; though there is no resolvement of whether he exists or not.

As Radnor’s second directorial feature, he shows an improvement from the low budget looking ‘Happythankyoumoreplease’, cutting from New York to Ohio; showing the difference in tone, nature and atmosphere of both places. The autumn colours of Kenyon College (shot on location) provide a peaceful mood, contrasting New York as busy, lonely and grey. The soundtrack is another juxtaposition of classical and modern acoustic. The modern music is subtle background noise, and the classical pieces take centre stage in certain scenes. The references may be old fashioned, but the film tries to influence the audience to give these another chance. Altogether, Radnor creates a nostalgic film where the older characters are lost in a world where they wish they were forever young, and the younger ones are filled with hope and wisdom. The audience is left with a feeling of appreciation of their adolescence, but a realistic look to the future, you may not be young forever, but you can grow old gracefully.


Ilana Green


Liberal Arts is currently showing at the Broadway Cinema.