"Nobody feels like an adult. It's the world's dirty secret." So says recently retired Kenyon College professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), who, after thirty-seven years of teaching, has decided to hang up his career. Returning to the small Ohio town for his big retirement soiree is former star pupil Jesse Fisher (Josh Radnor), a 35-year-old New York admissions counselor currently going through his own personal crisis (he still hasn't decided what he wants to do with the rest of his life). One thing is for sure: he can see where Peter is coming from. Jesse can hardly believe how old he is, and his age only comes back to haunt him when he meets and develops undeniable feelings for 19-year-old underclassman Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen). Discussing their kindred connection to each other, Jesse says, "I don't know if you're really advanced, or I'm just stunted." "I'm advanced," Zibby assures him. "Yeah," replies Jesse, "but I still think I'm kind of stunted."
Writer-director-actor Josh Radnor might be the lead star of CBS's hit sitcom "How I Met Your Mother," but his filmmaking sensibilities obviously lie very much in independent cinema. He has something to say and a way of saying it with humor and introspection, but his slice-of-life narratives tend to get betrayed at times by contrivance. This is what happened with his debut feature, 2010's "happythankyoumoreplease," and it happens again herealbeit to a lesser degreein "Liberal Arts." Avoiding the sophomore slump, Radnor's second film is altogether a more mature and confident piece of work, and in the radiant Elizabeth Olsen (2012's "Silent House
") he has found the person who deserves to become his onscreen muse. Olsen captures one's full attention and sympathies without demanding it; hers is a natural gift, one that few people have, and her charisma is in full effect as Zibby. Her scenes with Radnor's Jesse are the best, especially when they discuss everything from classical music to the worth (or lack thereof) of Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight," exploring the arts with far more depth than the usual idle filler chit-chat usually heard in movies. Jesse's job must be awfully lax about him showing uphe is able to drop everything at a moment's notice to travel halfway across the country for days on endbut if the viewer can get over this leap in logic, his charming relationship with Zibby is enough to make "Liberal Arts" worth seeing all by itself.
There is a cute scene in "Liberal Arts," so funny because of how true it is, where Jesse tries to reconcile the 16-year age difference between himself and Zibby. When he was her current age, she was three (yikes); when he is fifty, she will be thirty-four (not so bad); and when he is eighty-seven, she'll be seventy-one (practically interchangeable). As Zibby tries to tell him, "Age is just a number, it doesn't mean anything," and yet there still is something to be said for a man who has lived through nearly twice the life experiences of his partner. It's a hang-up he can't quite let go, especially after learning that Zibby is a virgin. "Liberal Arts" doesn't add up to a lot by the end, but the film works well as a keyhole into human nature and interaction. At least one side character is over-the-top and unnecessaryNat (Zac Efron), a hippy-dippy twenty-something in a knit cap who hangs out on campus despite not being a student, and may just be a figment of Jesse's imaginationwhile anotherJesse's favorite teacher, hard-nosed romantic British lit professor Judith Fairfield (Allison Janney)is crucial in revealing the authentic, unapologetic authority figures often hidden behind the rose-tinted window of education and idealism. It's a give-and-take picture, one with faults as well as virtues, but writer-director Josh Radnor makes certain that he leaves his audience with something to think about. That's a rare enough attribute to be worth holding in high regard.