Liberal Arts (film)

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Liberal Arts
Liberal Arts FilmPoster.jpeg
Poster for Liberal Arts
Directed by Josh Radnor
Produced by Brice Dal Farra
Claude Dal Farra
Jesse Hara
Lauren Munsch
Josh Radnor
Screenplay by Josh Radnor
Starring Josh Radnor
Elizabeth Olsen
Richard Jenkins
Allison Janney
John Magaro
Elizabeth Reaser
Music by Ben Toth
Cinematography Seamus Tierney
Edited by Michael R. Miller
Strategic Motion Ventures
BCDF Pictures
Tom Sawyer Entertainment
Distributed by IFC Films
Release dates
  • January 22, 2012 (2012-01-22) (Sundance)
  • September 14, 2012 (2012-09-14) (United States: limited)
Running time 97 minutes[1]
Country United States
Language English
Box office $327,345[1]

Liberal Arts is an American comedy-drama film. The second film directed by, written by, and starring Josh Radnor,[2] it tells the story of 35-year-old Jesse (Radnor) who has a romantic relationship with Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a 19-year-old college student.[3] The film premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in January 2012.[4]


Jesse Fischer (Radnor) is a 35-year-old college admissions officer in New York City who loves literature and language, but is newly single and dissatisfied with his life and career. He believes that the happiest time of his life was the years at his unnamed Ohio liberal arts college, where he could study poetry uninterrupted, surrounded by others like him. Peter Holberg (Jenkins), his old English professor, invites Jesse back to the college to attend Peter's retirement ceremony. Jesse meets 19-year-old Zibby (Olsen), a sophomore studying drama and the daughter of Peter's friends.

After the retirement dinner, Jesse stumbles upon a dorm party where he runs into Zibby. They agree to have coffee together the next day. He spends the afternoon with Zibby, and they walk around the campus discussing life, books, and music. He also encounters his old romantics teacher, Judith Fairfield (Janney)—a woman he has long admired—and meets Dean (Magaro), a brilliant but depressed student who, like Jesse, always carries a book with him.[5] Before Jesse leaves, Zibby asks to stay in touch; they become pen pals, and become closer via handwritten letters.

Zibby invites Jesse back to campus for a romantic encounter. Jesse has concerns about the 16-year age gap but agrees. They are caught by Peter, however, who warns Jesse about not living in the past and growing up. Zibby asks Jesse to sleep with her; Jesse agrees, but after she admits it would be her first time he declines and leaves. The angry and disappointed Zibby goes to a party and starts kissing a classmate. Jesse runs into Fairfield and has a one-night stand with her, but her bitter, cynical attitude toward life disillusions him.

Jesse returns to New York where he meets and starts dating Ana (Reaser), a bookseller with a similar love for books (and who, as Jesse notes, is "age-appropriate"). After Jesse helps avert Dean's suicide by overdose, he advises the young man to stop hiding from life within books. Jesse apologizes to Zibby, who says that she hoped to take a shortcut to adulthood through a relationship with Jesse, and that she understands that what he did was the right thing. The film ends with Jesse seemingly happy with the idea of growing old with Ana.



The film was shot at Kenyon College, Radnor and Janney's alma mater, throughout the summer of 2011.[6]


The film received mostly positive reviews receiving a 70% rating on Rotten Tomatoes with 71 positive reviews. The site's summary states: "While it's hard not to wish it had a little more bite, Liberal Arts ultimately succeeds as a good-natured -- and surprisingly clever -- look at the addictive pull of nostalgia for our youth."[7] Writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert called the film "an almost unreasonable pleasure" and gave it a 3 and a half out of 4 star rating.[8] On Metacritic, reception was mixed, with Liberal Arts holding a 55/100 score based on 24 reviews.[9] Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly praised the performances of the leads and gave the picture an A- rating.[10]


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