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A witty and bittersweet cross-generational comedy-drama, LIBERAL ARTS sees writer/director Josh Radnor play Jesse, a university admissions officer living in New York, who at 35 is jaded in both his career and his personal life as a long-term relationship comes to an end.
When he is invited to attend the retirement dinner of his favourite professor, Peter Hoburg (Richard Jenkins), at his old university in Ohio, Jesse jumps at the chance to take a trip down memory lane to a happier time.
Over the course of that nostalgic weekend he meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE), a zestful sophomore with a passion for literature, classical music and improv some 16 years his junior.
The two are immediately drawn together by their shared love of books, and Zibby introduces Jesse to her favourite pieces of music, which he too finds to be a revelation. Equally enchanted by her sassy self-confidence, he struggles to resist her forthright romantic advances, even as he is troubled by the stark contrasts in their respective stages of life and corresponding worldviews.
No such conflict exists when Jesse is expertly seduced by his former English Romantics lecturer whom he had greatly admired as a student, the hard-drinking, straight-talking and staunchly unromantic Judith Fairfield (Allison Janney, JUNO). Meanwhile a generation further on, Professor Hoburg is having his own existential crisis as he enters a retirement for which he is woefully underprepared.
While often funny and gently poking fun at youth’s obsession with self and significance, LIBERAL ARTS is ultimately an elegy to the raw passions of such halcyon days, perfectly capturing the tension between the untainted ideas and visions we have at that age and the very different realities and compromises of adult life. Jesse’s temporary dislocation and reconnection with his younger self bring to the fore the inevitability of change and our need to keep moving forward with the passage of time.
In highlighting this universal condition of ours, and the possibility of renewal it offers as well as the loss and regret it must entail, LIBERAL ARTS is, as its title implies, a film brimming with humanity.