Jesse (Josh Radnor) describes liberal arts colleges to a student in one sentence, “You can go up to everyone here and say, ‘I’m a poet,’ and no one will punch you in the face.”
The line not only sums up the free-spirited, out-going students of Kenyon College (Radnor’s actual alma mater), a small liberal arts school in Gambier, Ohio, it’s one of several witty lines in “Liberal Arts.”
The film, written, directed and starring the “How I Met Your Mother” actor, features characters who talk like real people, and that makes them all the more likable.
Jesse returns to his alma mater to attend a retirement party for his favorite professor, Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins). While in town, Jesse meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a 19-year-old sophomore who is majoring in Drama. Jesse and Zibby instantly click, discussing music, books, philosophy and life. When Jesse leaves Gambier, he promises to stay in touch with Zibby, and the two exchange hand-written letters for what seems like weeks, until they see each other again.
When Jesse returns and as he continues to hang around his old campus, he also continues to fall for Zibby. The problem is, that Jesse feels as if the best years of his life have past and is entering an early mid-life crisis. He is 35, and he questions their age gap and whether he should continue to see her. Though the age difference certainly presents a problem, Zibby seems well beyond her years, and we never underestimate their feelings for each other.
Performances are fantastic across the board here, especially of the charismatic Olsen (“Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “Silent House”). She creates such a pure and good-hearted character, you feel as if you’re her best friend after watching her for five minutes. Radnor sweetly leads the movie from start to finish. He plays the introverted book-lover very well, without making him weird, creepy or annoying.
Allison Janey also gives an incredible performance as Jesse’s former romance literature professor. She has so little dialogue in the film, but has an amazing presence on screen. Her facial expressions and cold demeanor complete the frustrated single professor, who plays a small but vital role in the story.
I especially loved Zac Efron’s turn as a hippie who hangs around campus, preaching to Jessie about the importance of taking care of the environment and drinking water to keep hydrated. The small part lets Efron show his range, and his scenes are some of the funniest in the film.
“Liberal Arts” is smartly written by Radnor and the terrific Olsen ignites his script just beautifully. A sweet romance and a nostalgic portrait of the college years makes “Liberal Arts” easy to love.