Jesse Fisher (Josh Radnor) is a disillusioned 35-year-old college admissions officer who has just broken up with his girlfriend. An invitation from his favourite college professor (Richard Jenkins) to speak at his retirement dinner gives Jesse an opportunity to relive his glory days as an engaged and engaging literature student. At his alma mater he meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) – a precocious classical music-loving sophomore – who awakens in him long-dormant feelings of possibility and connection.

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Learning life’s lessons is a bittersweet experience in Josh Radnor’s appealing film.

Movies about a self-absorbed man/child who suffers from an acute case of arrested social development can be tediously predictable and charmless. So kudos to Josh Radnor for giving the genre several fresh and surprising twists in Liberal Arts.

an impressive second effort

The star, writer and director has crafted an engaging film that adroitly shifts between smart comedy and poignant drama, tackling themes such as growing up, growing old, sex for beginners, sex as a commodity, and mental health.

It’s an impressive second effort from the writer-director following Happythankyoumoreplease, in which he played a 29-year-old slacker who’s forced to take responsibility when he spots a young African-American boy who’s lost in the New York subway.

Here his character, Jesse Fisher, is 35, bored with his job as an admissions officer at a New York City university and feeling sorry for himself as his live-in girlfriend packs up and leaves.

He gets a call from Peter Hoberg (a wonderfully sardonic Richard Jenkins), Jesse’s second favourite teacher when he attended university in Ohio, inviting him to his retirement dinner. With nothing better to do, Jesse heads to Ohio and discovers Hoberg has mixed feelings about the end of his 37-year academic career teaching political science.

Hoberg introduces Jesse to Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a 19-year-old drama student who’s the daughter of friends. She’s funny, extroverted and spontaneous, an antidote to his sad-sack, uptight demeanour.

She turns him on to classical music, gives him a CD she’s burned, and asks him to write to her in the old fashioned way, you know, with pen and paper, when he returns to New York. Via snail mail their relationship develops, prompting her to admit, 'I miss you. I don’t know why, I barely know you."

Understandably, Jesse is bothered by their age difference, calculating that when he was 19 she was three, but he’s increasingly drawn to this free-spirited young woman and goes back to Ohio. She seems unperturbed about the generational gap, tartly observing that all the 'dudes" she knows at college are 18-21 and act their age.

Just when you think you know where all this is headed, Radnor takes the plot into another direction, fuelling the intrigue.

While he’s in Ohio (filmed at Radnor’s alma mater, Kenyon College), Jesse befriends Dean (John Magaro), a bright but morose, socially awkward student who’s on medication for unspecified mental health problems. Dean, who is obsessed with the novel Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (who took his own life, as the film informs anyone who didn’t know), figures in a pivotal subplot.

Jesse also encounters Nat (Zac Efron), a hippie who hangs around the campus for no discernible reason and spouts New Age nonsense. Wearing what looks like a tea cosy on his head, Nat is an annoying and pointless diversion.

The always excellent Allison Janney bobs up as Judith Fairfield, an embittered, cynical, man-eating professor of romantic literature who had been Jesse’s favourite teacher.
Olsen is a preciously gifted talent, playing a far more balanced and rounded character than her role as a disturbed young woman who escapes from a communal cult in Martha Marcy May Marlene. She displays a remarkable range, revealing Zibby’s vulnerabilities and self-doubt lurking beneath the bravado.

As an actor, Radnor (who stars in the TV sitcom How I Met Your Mother) clearly wants to be liked if not adored by audiences. Some may find him ingratiating but I think he’s convincing as a jaded, lonely guy who is blessed or cursed, depending on your viewpoint, with a 'gooey heart," as one character puts it.

The rapport between Radnor and Olsen is palpable, and how refreshing to see a film where intelligent people talk about great works of literature and classical music, interspersed with an amusing debate over the merits of a series of vampire novels (unnamed, but no prizes for guessing which ones), as well as ruminating on the meaning of their own lives.

At the end, you might feel inclined to send Radnor an SMS: Happy thank you more please.

Liberal Arts

Tuesday 7 January, 7:30PM on SBS World Movies (now streaming at SBS On Demand)

M
USA, 2011
Genre: Romance, Comedy
Language: English
Director: Josh Radnor
Starring: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney
What's it about?
Jesse Fisher (Radnor) is a disillusioned 35-year-old college admissions officer who has just broken up with his girlfriend. An invitation from his favourite college professor (Jenkins) to speak at his retirement dinner gives Jesse an opportunity to relive his glory days as an engaged and engaging literature student. At his alma mater he meets Zibby (Olsen) – a precocious classical music-loving sophomore – who awakens in him long-dormant feelings of possibility and connection.

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Details

1 hour 37 min
In Cinemas 13 December 2012,

Genres