Editor’s note: Liberal Arts opens in limited release this Friday (just in time for back-to-school!), so please enjoy our Sundance review of the film, originally published on January 23, 2012.
Triple threat Josh Radnor‘s first feature, happythankyoumoreplease, debuted at Sundance in 2010, hitting big with the crowds and ultimately winning the Audience Award. The film was written and directed by Radnor, who also starred in it as a disaffected twentysomething struggling to make meaningful connections with others in big, bad New York City. Radnor’s latest outing, Liberal Arts, is written and directed by Radnor, and stars the multi-hyphenate as– well, you probably know the rest. But while happythankyoumoreplease was perhaps too much of a classic first feature – complete with overly precious touches and too much reliance on the magic of coincidence and not enough emphasis on the sort of things that actually happen in the real world – Liberal Arts sees Radnor and his craft maturing wonderfully, which is startlingly in-line with the aims of the actual film.
Radnor stars as an older, mid-thirties cousin of happythankyoumoreplease‘s Sam Wexler. His Jesse Fisher is consumed with books, and his affection for printed reading material perhaps eclipses his affection for anything (and anyone) else. That’s probably why Jesse is (both unoriginally and still quite believably) unsatisfied with his current life state. His job as a college admissions counselor means that Jesse comes equipped with a few conversational ticks that he might not even be fully aware of possessing (though Radnor the writer certainly is). He’s interested in people, but most of his questions seem rehearsed and leading, meant to disarm those he is asking while not revealing much about himself. And that’s certainly no way to go through life.
Invited back to his alma mater for a weekend to help fete his favorite professor (Richard Jenkins, solid as ever), Jesse reverts back to his college self, in terms of both of his maturity level and his passion for life. Returning to academia (if even for a little bit) plunges Jesse back into college life – complete with hyperbolic statements, dramatics, discovery, and new friends. Well, you know, new friends, including Elizabeth Olsen as the exuberant and knowledgeable Zibby, who Jesse enters into a halting and somewhat undefined relationship with. The two embark on an old-fashioned courtship – the kind with exchanged mix CDs and handwritten letters.
But how can Jesse ever grow up when he’s fascinated by someone sixteen years his junior? And how can he function in his own life when he just wants to go back in time? Radnor adeptly juggles these big questions through the sometimes-myopic gaze of his Jesse, and the results are lively, fresh, funny, and heartfelt.
Happythankyoumoreplease and Liberal Arts are both concerned with making connections in the modern world, and both center on protagonists who believe that those connections will help them grow up into the adults they feel they somehow should already be. Jesse is unsatisfied both with his life and with himself, but Radnor’s treatment of an early on-set mid-life crisis is more refined than it was in his previous work, and less glossed over with twee touches that seem unrealistic and detrimental to real growth. Liberal Arts is a film about growing up and how that can be scary, but how it is essential and ultimately good. It’s a fine and appropriate message for a sophomore feature, and one that Radnor does extremely well by.
The Upside: Liberal Arts shows great growth in Radnor’s filmmaking and acting, and is frequently quite charming and genuinely humorous, with great heart. Radnor clearly has passion and affection for the films he makes, and that continues to shine through.
The Downside: Radnor’s film still has twee touches that, like those in happythankyoumoreplease, will likely annoy on repeated viewings. Certain elements are a bit too precious and convenient.
On the Side: Liberal Arts was filmed on location at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, Josh Radnor’s actual alma mater.