Liberal Arts

In the summer of 1999, the Farrelly Brothers filmed Jim Carrey’s Me, Myself, and Irene a half-mile from my Vermont house. Hollywood visiting Vermont is (surprisingly) rare, so it was big news ’round these parts, and when it hit theaters a year later it was a trip to see my neighborhood on the big screen.

As it turns out, it was also very distracting; I remember answering, “Honestly, I don’t know” when someone asked how the movie was.

Now my alma mater Kenyon College is getting its big-screen debut in Liberal Arts, written and directed by fellow alum (he was a freshman when I was a senior) Josh Radnor (Happythankyoumoreplease). And it’s a testament to the movie that I actually paid more attention to it than the scenery– enough, anyway, to know that Radnor is a promising young filmmaker, and that he’ll have a nice career after How I Met Your Mother ends.

Jesse Fisher (Radnor) is a newly single semi-loser passing his time in New York City. When his former professor (Richard Jenkins) calls to invite him back to campus for his retirement party, Jesse jumps at the opportunity to get out of town for the weekend.

Once there, Jesse has a chance meeting with sophomore Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), and the two, despite their 15-year age difference, hit it off. Sharing similar tastes (and intellects… she’s as advanced as he is stunted), Jesse and Zibby spend the weekend strolling the bucolic campus (and it really is bucolic), chatting about life, the universe, and everything.

When the weekend is over, a pen pal relationship (on actual paper, with actual stamps) keeps them in contact, and he spends every waking moment listening to a mix CD of classical music she made for him. Eventually, though, she invites him back to campus, and what started as a cute little friendship matures. And did we mention that Jesse runs into Zac Efron playing a deeply philosophical tree-hugger?

Radnor’s script is smart, funny, and completely charming. He may well have been a Drama major at Kenyon, but the school’s renowned English Department obviously rubbed off a little, too. The movie is punctuated by honest, natural dialogue about everything from parental pressures to opera, and even though the ending is a little wobbly, Jesse and Zibby’s voices never waver. And in a smartly ironic bit, Radnor’s character lambastes the Twilight saga, which employs his real-life girlfriend Julia Jones and his Liberal Arts co-star Elizabeth Reaser.

This may be Radnor’s movie in every sense of the word, but it’s Olsen who steals the show with a stellar, complex turn as Zibby. At once both vulnerable and assured, it’s easy to see why and how a middle-aged fella might start to fall for her. And it’s safe to say that Efron has finally (and firmly) left his High School Musical days in his rearview mirror with yet another memorable performance. The rest of the supporting cast, including Allison Janney (Kenyon class of ’82) as another of Jesse’s former professors and John Magaro as a depressed student, also help elevate Liberal Arts from being just another cute little indie flick to a truly worthwhile film.

And it’s even more fun for anyone who ever wandered Kenyon’s Middle Path or chowed down in Pierce Hall.

4/5 stars