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Liberal Arts (12A)
Cineworld, O2
28th April 2012

★★★★☆

When watching Liberal Arts, you get the feeling the film was created not to entertain, as much as act as a thank-you from writer/director/star Josh Radnor to his alma mater.

With so much screen time devoted to Kenyon College, the university feels less of a pretty backdrop, but a character in its own right. One who gives as easily as takes away, but when viewed through Josh's (or his character Jesse's) eyes, a benevolent force nonetheless. A parent who allows you to make your own mistakes.

As with his previous film Happythankyoumoreplease, Radnor's tendancy toward existentialsim is the driving force behind the picture. Here, though, it is seen through the prism of literature, Josh Radnor's university major. He has read every book referenced and, boy, does he want you to know it.

As enrolement office Jesse, Radnor goes home to Kenyon for a retirement party for one of his old professors, Peter Hoberg, played with beautiful snark by Richard Jenkins. The unfulfilled Jesse there meets student Zibby and the pair embark upon a relationship. Seeing Zibby's rise in academia just as Hoberg's star falls forces the 30-something to confront his own unfulfilment and question his adulthood.

Radnor admits that the original cut of the film was much longer than the 97-minute running time. This accounts for a few of the film's odd beats, with characters dropping in and out. Some, such as depressive student Dean, are only picked up again at pivotal moments for Jesse's development. But this is a small criticism given that while the minor characters, for example, Alison Janney's acerbic, bitter Professor Judith Fairfield, only occupy the screen for a short time, their impact is so strong.

All of the cast do a stellar job with the wry script. Elizabeth Olsen as Zibby has charm, vulnerability and a youthful exhuberance that could have been wearing if played badly. John Magaro as Dean is, at times, heartbreaking and sadly all too believable. While Jesse is a cypher character, Radnor isn't afraid to give himself some of the best lines. But others undoubtedly belong to Zac Efron, delightfully playing against type proving, like Leonardo DiCaprio did years ago, he is not just a pretty face but rather an up-and-coming force to be reckoned with.

Performances aside, Radnor's obvious affection for the characters, setting and subject matter help elevate what could have easily been a middle-of-the-road romcom into something much more special.

Liberal Arts was shown as part of Sundance London, from 26th to 29th April 2012. It will be released in the UK on 5th October 2012.

Nearest tube station: North Greenwich for the O2 (Jubilee)



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