Sundance London 2012: ‘Liberal Arts’ Josh Radnor’s love letter to academia


Liberal Arts
Written by Josh Radnor
Directed by Josh Radnor
USA, 2012

How I Met Your Mother‘s Josh Radnor proved that he is more than just a funnyman with his 2010 directorial debut, happythankyoumoreplease.  His second outing behind the camera takes him back to his old college days in this touching romantic dramedy.

Liberal Arts sees Jesse Fischer (Radnor) return to Kenyon College, Ohio to celebrate the retirement of Peter (Richard Jenkins), one of his favorite professors. Here, he meets sophomore student Zibby (Martha Marcy May Marlene‘s Elizabeth Olsen) and strikes up a relationship that opens his mind and life to more.

Radnor places a heavy emphasis on quirk with his script and character.  Jesse encapsulates the modern thinking man: intelligent, literary yet lonely and somewhat disillusioned with his life. The moment he returns to his old school to Ohio, there is a sense of jubilation and contentment – this is where his character comes out of its shell and you feel involved in his personal journey.  Willing to try new things but remain emotionally stunted at times, Radnor plays Jesse with an awkwardness that you could even call cute.

Zibby is a charmingly witty character – with her love of improvisation and classical music, she introduces to Jesse a simpler outlook on life.  Evidently innocent yet wise to the world, Olsen brings charisma and maturity to her role, and she certainly holds her own alongside Radnor.  A surprisingly funny Zac Efron and Allison Janney, who respectively play hippie-style freethinker Nat and Jesse’s old English literature professor, make their short appearances count with wit and humour.

Peter, played by Cabin in the Woods‘ Richard Jenkins, possesses a dry sense of humour and relaxed persona, which seems to dissolve during a tense conversation with his old boss.  It is touching to see his reluctance to move on, because it paints another dimension to him that Jesse can relate to – his love for the college.

Radnor complements the witty dialogue and appealing characters with beautiful shots of New York and Kenyon College.  As an alumnus, he certainly knows how to capture the college in its simplicity and allows its ‘natural beauty’ to speak for itself.

There is a lot of simple touches in the film: from mix CDs and handwritten letters to New York chaos drowned by opera arias and overtures, as well as this underlying feeling of trying to remain connected to the life’s happier times, making Liberal Arts appealing yet bittersweet at the same time. Witty and beautiful, Liberal Arts is like a book you enjoy re-reading because it’s marked with brief passages that make you smile and laugh.

Katie Wong

The 26th-29th April sees the Sundance London Film and Music festival hit the O2 Arena, which sees the festival – renowned for its programme of independent film – take place in the UK for the first time in its 34-year history.

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