Liberal Arts Review

How low will you go?

That’s the unpalatable dilemma, or not, that stares Jesse in the face in Josh Radnor’s coming of age indie comedy Liberal Arts.

But Jesse’s biggest problem is that he never really left college.

Having majored in English something or other at Ohio college, our thirty something protagonist made the move to the big apple to try his luck there.

Jesse’s reality has seen him end up working in college admissions, his relationship has just crumbled away and the city so great they named it twice is starting to grind down his joie de vivre.

Jaded from his metropolitan experiences, Jesse jumps at the chance to return to Ohio when his second favourite professor invites him to speak at his retirement dinner.

Once there, our early candidate for a mid life crisis stumbles upon an innocent yet worldly teenage drama undergraduate called Zibby, short for Elizabeth.

As is so often the case between writers and actors, the two feel a pretty instant connection to each other; but is Jesse for real about his new romantic muse sixteen years his junior, or is he simply trying to avoid something else?

Liberal Arts is an american term given to college courses students can take where they study a multitude of creative fields, with Radnor who writes, directs and stars in his film taking literal and literary inspiration from his own experiences of studying the arts.

Specifically, how ill prepared this leaves you to handle the real world.

Having found myself in a similar boat after leaving uni, I can only empathise with Radnor’s predicament.

The comedy he’s created here is sweet, slightly left field and occasionally self indulgent; meaning anyone familiar with independent cinema will feel right at home.

Radnor cast himself as his own leading man and is endearing enough to make you root for him to figure out whatever it is that makes his character feel so lost.

Naturally, this isn’t easy when Jesse does things like leaving his teenage crush Zibby all alone in her bedroom so he can read that vampire book, you know the one, just so he can justify his inherent hatred of this.

Did I mention said crush is played by Elizabeth Olsen, her of Martha Marcy May Marlene fame, and she’d already asked her roommate to make herself scarce for the day?

Jesse must have bigger problems then I could possibly fathom to sabotage such an opportunity.

Elizabeth Olsen as the free spirited ingénue Zibby continues to make me wonder whether she really is related to her soon to be less famous twin sisters, by one again being the most compelling presence on screen.

With her child like face, fragile sense of vulnerability and huge green eyes, Olsen simply looks as though she was made for cinema. Even more amazing in this age of vacuous celebrities, she also has the talent to back up her matinee idol looks.

But Liberal Arts is Radnor’s show and, whilst for the most part it’s charming and witty, there’s nothing here that makes it stand apart from the slew of other offbeat coming of age indie comedies you’ll have seen from this increasingly saturated american genre.

As for how low Radnor will go, let’s just say he’s a better man than me.

Jonathan Campbell

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May 2012
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