Meet Jesse. He’s a 35-year old college admissions officer living in New York, New York – shown as a beautiful town in the opening scenes until Jesse gets his (dirty) laundry stolen from under his nose at the laundromat. Clearly, no matter how magical life’s moments, reality is never far away.
Packing a bag with romantic memories of his own time at college in Ohio, Jesse returns one weekend to attend the retirement dinner of a favourite professor (the wonderfully doleful Richard Jenkins). There he meets the much younger Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen, still luminous from her break-out role in Martha Marcy May Marlene), a drama student who teaches him “The first rule of improv is to say ‘Yes’”. She’s forward, he’s conflicted, but they spark up a long-distance friendship, writing old-fashioned letters and sharing their favourite works of art.
Writer-director-star Josh Radnor plays Jesse so real that the film feels practically autobiographical, but perhaps that’s just because the central university-bound relationship bears so many familiar hallmarks of young love, burgeoning intellectualism, pretentious conversation and the bestowing of mix-tapes (now, of course, made on CD). Radnor’s story captures other universal truths too, including a delightfully resonant depiction of the impact of classical music as a soundtrack to one’s daily life.
The very likable Radnor (best known as Ted from TV’s How I Met Your Mother) and the beguiling Olsen have a tangible chemistry that gives enormous legitimacy to the possibly-inappropriate infatuation and all its consequent dilemmas. Jesse’s relationship with Professor Hoberg is similarly charming. With support from the ever-sardonic Allison Janney and a trippy turn by Zac Efron, Liberal Arts is not ashamed to be good-natured and warm-hearted.
For those viewers who can embrace this trip back down memory lane, there is great pleasure to be had in recognising youthful feelings and situations – and perhaps, ultimately, in the relief that those days have passed.