Things could be going better for Jesse Fisher (Josh Radnor), what with his clothes getting stolen at the launderette, his girlfriend splitting up with him, and his job dealing with university admissions unfulfilling. He thinks back to his own university days with nostalgia, when he was so full of hope for the future, hope which never turned out to blossom into anything satisfying, so when his old tutor Professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins) calls him out of the blue and asks him to attend his leaving ceremony at the Liberal Arts college Jesse used to be a student in, he jumps at the chance, keen to relive his glory days if only for a short while...
Director, writer and star Josh Radnor would be better known to television audiences than he would be for cinemagoers, what with his hit sitcom, but he had more strings to his bow than delivering the easy laughs in How I Met Your Mother as he was striking out as an indie filmmaker as well. In the case of Liberal Arts, his second film in that capacity, it was nothing especially groundbreaking, setting up a dilemma for its protagonist and proceeding to solve it whereupon after the problem was dealt with it seemed like a storm in a teacup. Fortunately, in Radnor's hands you didn't dismiss the characters outright while we were watching the drama play out, and there were jokes as well.
If this sounded like any number of comedy dramas emerging from the American independent scene - and not only their independent scene - then it was true Radnor really needed to go the extra mile to have the production stand out, which you could convincingly argue he didn't particularly. That was aside from one thing, a question he posed early on, which was whether a man in his mid-thirties can fall in love with a nineteen-year-old, and the feeling be mutual, not to mention mutually beneficial. That was assuredly falling in love which was on the movie's mind, and not falling in lust which would not be too shocking to learn about, depending on the conclusion, but Radnor played Jesse as such a nice guy that you wanted the best for him.
However, was the best for him a much younger girlfriend? The character in question is Zibby, essayed by rising star Elizabeth Olsen, who is portrayed as a perfectly reasonable young woman and one which it was not millions of miles outwith the boundaries of possibility that Jesse would find attractive. She is the student daughter of a couple of Peter's acquaintance who makes a conversational connection with Jesse over a lunch they all enjoy, and soon they are writing letters to each other regularly, to their mutual appreciation (and with the assistance of a magical Zac Efron who our hero meets on the campus one night, an odd item of casting which is not too jarring, as it turns out). But when Jesse is persuaded by Zibby to meet her for a get together, he has cold feet about what that could entail.
Basically, the issue is does Jesse want to have sex with this girl, or is that beyond the pale? Is he the possessor of scruples which will prevent him seducing her - yes - but can he resist her if the tables are turned and she tries to seduce him - not so sure? This was not exactly a Lolita scenario as Zibby is a grown woman who knows her own mind, but we can see by the older characters that life has buffeted them around and made them prone to cynicism and desperation: Jesse is not exempt from that either. It was interesting that Radnor puts the thirtysomething in the same position as Zibby is when he meets an old (and older) tutor (Allison Janney) who he was very impressed with and she takes sexual advantage of him, which may be a dispiriting experience eventually, but helps him put things in perspective, especially when he comes to terms with what Zibby was asking. Even though now she has her own emotional damage to live with, you can't deny Jesse made the right decision in a light comic drama which talked sense, but didn't talk down. Music by Ben Toth.