Deliciously seductive campus comedy Liberal Arts is a coming-of-age story that revolves around the tentative romance between a 35-year-old man and a 19-year-old girl – but the person doing most of the growing up is the 35-year-old.
Jesse Fisher, played by Josh Radnor, the film’s writer and director, is a 35-year-old university admissions officer whose life in New York has stalled, emotionally and professionally. So he’s more than happy to revisit his old alma mater, a liberal arts college in Ohio, to speak at his favourite college professor’s retirement dinner.
He gets a buzz simply by being back on campus, but he gets an even bigger rush when he meets precocious 19-year-old drama student Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), who brims with a teenager’s eager curiosity and innocence but also possesses an assurance beyond her years. When Jesse returns to New York, the pair begin an old-fashioned pen-and-paper correspondence that draws them even closer, but when Jesse returns to Ohio to visit Zibby he can’t shake off his uneasiness about the age difference between them.
Given the potential for queasiness inherent in the film’s set-up, Radnor’s portrayal of Jesse and Zibby’s relationship is remarkably sensitive and well judged. Fortunately, the pair don’t exist in a bubble. And as Jesse grapples with nostalgia and regret, his meetings with a series of other figures put his confused feelings in perspective.
‘Put some armour on that gooey heart of yours’, Alison Janney’s jaded professor of Romantic poetry tells him, after they have an illusion-shattering one-night stand. Elsewhere, Jesse has more rewarding encounters with depressed literature student Dean (John Magaro), with Zac Efron’s dippy college drop-out and with Elizabeth Reaser’s amiable bluestocking, who could possibly be an alternative, more age-appropriate object of desire.
Meanwhile, his old mentor (the typically excellent Richard Jenkins) finds himself filled with misgiving about giving up his job, offering an object lesson in the folly trying to hold on to the past.
Liberal Arts won’t necessarily chime with everyone, but for me, it has the wisdom and delicacy, and bitter-sweet mood, of an Eric Rohmer film – a resemblance enhanced by the superb Olsen, who has the radiance of one of Rohmer’s young heroines and delivers a wonderfully naturalistic and unaffected performance. As a filmmaker, Radnor, best known as the star of the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, isn’t in the same league as the great French director, yet, but he has made a film to cherish, one that is funny and sad, tender and romantic.
In cinemas from Friday 5th October.
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