Josh Radnor harnesses the unstoppable indie power of Elizabeth Olsen for his sophomore effort, a winning semi-autobiographical mix of comedy and drama.
Best known for the better part of the last decade as Ted Moseby on TV’s How I Met Your Mother, Josh Radnor made his directorial debut with the audience-pleasing Happythankyoumoreplease in 2010. The winner of the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award and a nominee for the Grand Jury Prize the same year, it is wonderful to see that Radnor has not only returned to writing and directing, but has brought one of the better reflections on the mid-30s funk that is all too familiar to anybody with a liberal arts and social sciences background.
Thirty-something Jesse (Josh Radnor) is recently single and bored with his job in university admissions. With his head constantly buried in a book, he worries life has passed him by. When his favourite college professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins) invites him back to his old campus to speak at a retirement dinner, he quickly accepts the offer and heads off for a weekend of nostalgia. However, there he meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a forthright undergraduate who sparks feelings in Jesse that he thought he’d lost for good.
The coming-of-age genre has increasingly shifted over the last few decades to studies of people in their 20s and 30s, and this is perhaps indicative of the uncertainty a world of choice brings with it. Radnor’s heartfelt exploration of the impotency that accompanies the ambiguous career paths of a liberal arts/humanities/social science degree is a genuine one, and undoubtedly something that a number of people of a similar age (who didn’t go on to a successful acting career) will share with the filmmaker. Radnor contrasts this dilemma with the ageing character of Hoberg, flawlessly played by the incomparable Jenkins, who is having his own crisis of faith at the tail end of a career Jesse wishes he had followed to some extent.
Radnor transplants enough of his television persona into Jesse to make him instantly accessible, but this is not simply a retread of his previous work. Olsen continues to dominate the indie world after an impressive debut last year in Martha Marcy May Marlene, but here she has a more concrete persona to latch onto. Yet what sells Liberal Arts is that this is a romantic comedy that develops a believable romance between Jesse and someone almost half his age, and doesn’t quite take you where you expect. This sense of the offbeat is embodied in the guru Nat (Zac Efron), who doesn’t attend college but irregularly turns up to dispense sage wisdom from his bottle of water.
Liberal Arts marks the continuation of a strong storytelling voice in Radnor, who hopefully focus more on this kind of filmmaking when his television children eventually find out how he met their mother. Smart, funny and sincere, not to mention being beautifully shot by Seamus Tierney (Veronika Decides to Die) – possibly boosting Ohio university admissions – this is a film that you should let wash over you.
Liberal Arts debuted at Sundance in January 2012, and Sundance London in April 2012.. It will play at the Sydney Film Festival in June 2012, and be released theatrically in Australia on 11 October 2012 from Icon.