Sundance Journal: ‘Liberal Arts’

‘How I Met Your Mother’ star Josh Radnor made his directorial debut at Sundance last year with ‘happythankyoumoreplease‘. He’s back this year with a more mature, more refined effort, ‘Liberal Arts’.

Coming-of-age stories are a dime a dozen at film festivals. With that said, I’ve never seen a coming-of-age movie quite like ‘Liberal Arts’. It isn’t just about a teenager finding his identity and learning to mature; this is much more. There are seniors (played by Richard Jenkins and Allison Janney) who learn that they are indeed old. There’s a middle-aged man (played by Radnor) realizing that he isn’t as young as he thinks he is. Then there’s a wide-eyed teenage college student (played by Elizabeth Olsen) who finally figures out that maybe she isn’t as old and wise as she thinks she is. Everyone here comes to terms with the different stages they’re at in their lives, which makes for a somewhat refreshing take on the coming-of-age genre.

Radnor plays Jesse, a college admissions officer who, for lack of better words, is quite pretentious. He reads poetry and philosophy, and novels like ‘Infinite Jest’ even though he doesn’t really like them. One day, an old college professor (Jenkins) calls him up and asks him to come to a retirement party in Ohio. Jesse accepts, eager to travel back to his old stomping grounds. The moment he’s back on campus, he has an almost romantic view of what college was like. He’s simply forgotten all the tests and mundane studying that went into it. He remembers his time on campus with rose-colored glasses.

He soon meets Zibby (Olsen), who fancies herself wiser than many of her classmates even though she’s only 19. Jesse soon develops feelings for her, but feels like their age difference is too much of a hindrance to continue. This is where everyone in the movie sort of comes together and starts realizing that they all need to grow up no matter what their age. It’s interesting to watch these different groups all think that they are wiser than the others yet still young at heart.

‘Liberal Arts’ is also a lesson in pretentious living and realizing that hating something just because it’s cool to hate really is no reason at all. There’s a hilarious subplot about Zibby reading the ‘Twilight’ books, and how even though Jesse hasn’t read them, he still hates them and believes she should hate them too.

If you aren’t a fan of Radnor, then you probably won’t really enjoy ‘Liberal Arts’. His character Jesse is basically Ted Mosby from ‘How I Met Your Mother’, only with fewer one-liners. Oh, and any movie that can get a funny and simultaneously poignant acting job from Zac Efron is good in my book. Efron appears as a friendly hippie who guides Jesse through some of his troubling times. Very funny stuff. I enjoyed ‘Liberal Arts,’ but I also like Radnor’s work, so take that for what it’s worth.

Rating: ★★★½☆

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