“LIBERAL Arts”, Josh Radnor’s second feature as writer/director/lead actor, establishes him as an intelligent player in the cinema game in a way that better-known names might spend their careers trying to match.
His perceptive screenplay grasps our attention firmly without wallowing in clichés and takes us for a comfortable ride along paths of satisfying credibility.
Jesse, 35 years old and acrimoniously divorced, a BA from an Ohio university now mired in a stultifying job in the Admissions Office at one in New York, returning for the retirement valediction of his friend Prof Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), meets 19-year-old sophomore Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen). The film does more than examine how a warm friendship develops, intellectually satisfying despite her enthusiasm for modern young-adult vampire fiction!
The excellent supporting cast includes Zac Ephron as Nat, a campus eccentric whose take on reality sustains Jesse through difficult moments. John Magaro is Dean, an undergraduate with mental health issues. Elizabeth Reaser is Ana, a New York librarian whose significance will burgeon toward story’s end.
Playing a lecturer whose influence on undergraduate Josh had been profound, Allison Janney gives a brief but powerful portrayal of a woman whose devotion to teaching has compressed her private life into an emotionally uncomfortable space from which her lovers must quickly put their pants back on and leave. Janney ranks highly on my personal list of women actors who have not let age cramp their power. I commend her to every reader.
Meanwhile, “Liberal Arts”, having arrived unheralded, serves as a worthy opener to the summer cinema season.