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Liberal Arts (2012)

By Janine Gericke.

Most people probably know Josh Radnor from his CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, but thanks to word of mouth and Netflix instant streaming, more people are getting to know Josh Radnor, feature film writer, director and actor through his first film Happythankyoumoreplease (2010). Happythankyoumoreplease was a solid debut filled with characters who are just trying to find their place. In a lot of ways, Radnor’s latest film Liberal Arts (in which he once again writes, directs and stars) creates much of the same feeling but, in this film, his characters are consumed with holding on to their pasts.

In the film, Radnor plays Jesse, a 35-year-old college admissions officer for a New York City school. Jesse makes a life-changing journey back to his alma mater, Kenyon College (which was actually Radnor and co-star Allison Janney’s own alma mater), to attend his second-favorite professor’s (Richard Jenkins) retirement party. While there, he meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a lively and inspiring 19-year-old sophomore. Despite their 16-year age difference, they become fast friends and their attraction is hard to miss. Zibby reminds Jesse of a time that he longs for, when things just seemed more simple. Before leaving Ohio, Jesse reconnects with his favorite professor, the icy Judith Fairfield (Allison Janney). He also meets Dean (John Magaro), a troubled college student who he begins to mentor and Nat (Zac Efron), a slacker who is really the only one who has any idea what is going on around him.

Before Jesse heads back to New York City, Zibby suggests that they write letters to each other. Jesse and Zibby narrate their letters—creating some of the most touching moments in the film (Zibby even tucks in classical music mixtapes). Jesse admits to her that he listens to this music while walking around the city—it makes the city that much more beautiful. It’s easy to relate to moments like this, where everything around you inspires you and momentarily makes the world shinier. Liberal Arts is filled with moments like this. Radnor’s characters dedicate themselves to reading and talking about books, drafting handwritten letters, dreaming about growing old and making their mark on the world.

Radnor’s characters all struggle with change. Jesse is not fulfilled with his job and wants to relive a time when everything seemed possible. Jenkin’s professor is terrified of retirement and doesn’t want to lose the connection that he shares with his students. This fear of change blinds these characters, sending them down paths they would never rationally choose.

I really enjoyed Liberal Arts. I knew that I would probably like it since I am a fan of Happythankyoumoreplease, but I wasn’t expecting it to pull me in like it did. The film has an immensely talented cast, well-rounded characters, and romantic notions of love, happiness and growing older. I found myself not only drawn to the characters, but also thinking about my own life and the parts of my past that I don’t want to let go of.

IFC Films will release Liberal Arts later this year.

Janine Gericke is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.

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