There is a reason why 19–year–old girls fall in love with 30–year–old men. “Liberal Arts,” the new comedy/drama from writer, director and star Josh Radnor, of “How I Met Your Mother,” attempts to illuminate the unusual nature of this age–defying pairing against the background of a more universal experience: college.
The film is set at an unnamed liberal arts school in the Midwest and was filmed at Kenyon College, Radnor’s alma mater. The shots of the school are absolutely breathtaking: long stretches of grassy walkways, wood–paneled dining halls and stately classroom buildings evoke the sense of nostalgia that Radnor’s character, Jesse Fisher, experiences upon a return to campus.
Jesse, a 35–year–old college counselor, is asked back to attend a retirement dinner for beloved professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins, ever affecting and insightful). Disillusioned by his scummy New York apartment and lonely, unfulfilling job, Jesse jumps at the chance to revisit his more enjoyable college days.
At first, it feels as though he has never left. His rapport with Hoberg hasn’t changed, and the campus is as inviting as he remembered.
Apparently, so are the students. He meets the amusing Nat (Zac Efron), a hippie with a fuzzy knit hat and Zen worldview who invites Jesse along to a party. Nat is just one of a host of figures who manages to suggest both a broad college stereotype and an incisively–written individual. Another is Judith Fairfield (Allison Janney), a British Romantics professor who seduces Jesse and then pitilessly tosses him out of her bed.
But the film — and Jesse — belongs to Zibby, a lusty college sophomore played by Elizabeth Olsen. With her gorgeous cheekbones and dewy skin, it isn’t hard to see what draws Jesse to Zibby. And beneath her striking features is a precociousness and zest for learning that make her even more attractive. Her mix of maturity and youthful excitability convinces the two that they make a good match, despite the age gap. However, when Jesse is confronted by Zibby’s vulnerability and sexual inexperience, he realizes that maybe he has outgrown college, after all.
“Liberal Arts” is a small, deeply felt film that reminds us of the shifting lens of personal experience through which we view art, the people we meet and the events of our lives. As Jesse mentions to Zibby, “I feel different now than I felt when I was here — and I hate to break this to you, but so will you.” The film may well encourage you to take a look at your own perspective on the college experience — and how it constantly grows and evolves.