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Liberal Arts

In the 35 years since Animal House became a monster hit, college life has been defined in American movies as, in a word, saturnalian. That’s one reason why I found myself responding to Liberal Arts: It’s a film born from its creator’s warm, fuzzy memory of his college days as an opportunity for intellectual growth, though not without room for the often combined pleasures of grape and flesh.

Liberal Arts was written and directed by Josh Radnor, who with this second feature film is clearly looking to break past his image as a sitcom star. He also stars (because when you have a low budget why should you hire any more actors than you have to?) as Jesse, a 35-year-old experiencing Manhattan burnout. His girlfriend has left him, his laundry gets stolen before he even gets a chance to wash it, and he is less than inspired by his job as a college admissions counselor. It’s the perfect time to take advantage of on opportunity to visit his alma mater, Ohio’s Kenyon College, a place that looks the way all colleges ought to look. While visiting with his favorite professor (the always enjoyable Richard Jenkins), Jesse is introduced to a drama student who calls herself Zibby (Elizabeth Olson). Her birth certificate says Elizabeth, but your name is only one of many things that college gives you an opportunity to reinvent.

That intellectual attraction becomes confused with physical attraction is the inevitable plot complication, with the too-much-younger Zibby as well as with the acceptably older Judith (Allison Janney), whose fondly remembered British Literature class left Jesse with some impressions she wickedly dismantles in the film’s best scene. While wrestling with these problems, Jesse finds time to interact with a pair of young men who might be opposite sides of himself at their age, one a flake (pleasantly played by Zac Efron) who is overly open to unusual ideas, the other an “aggressively unhappy” fellow (John Magaro) obsessed with David Foster Wallace.

At a time when the structure of American secondary education is just starting to get a long overdue reevaluation in terms of how it prepares the young for their futures, a movie that stands up for the values of a liberal arts education feels welcome. Is college wasted on the young? Maybe not, but it’s one more thing to envy them for.

Watch the trailer for Liberal Arts

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