Appearances can be deceiving. Liberal Arts is a movie with a boring title, a boring poster and a boring-sounding premise. Liberal Arts is also one of the more heartwarming and engaging romantic dramas of the year.
Liberal Arts stars Josh Radnor, who also wrote and directed the movie, as an aimless 30-something named Jesse who meets and falls in love with college student Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen). The two form an immediate connection, but Jesse struggles with their age gap. Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, John Magaro and Zac Efron make up the supporting cast.
The movie is a simply constructed drama that is more than the sum of its parts. On the surface, the film plays like a dozen other low-budget romantic dramas that have been released over the last year. But like any of those other movies, or any romantic drama ever put to celluloid, success or failure relies on the little things, the nuanced moments, the chemistry between the leads.
Liberal Arts succeeds in all these things.
What sets this movie apart is that the story is less about the romance between Jesse and Zibby than it is about Jesse's discovery of what he's looking for in a relationship. In real life, romances - hell, even simple crushes - come and go and you don't necessarily know what you want and don't want until you experience something good, something bad and everything in between. Radnor doesn't reinvent the romantic drama by any means, but he puts enough of a twist on the formula to make things interesting.
Radnor turns in a fine performance, but Elizabeth Olsen steals the show. The two actors have great chemistry together, but it is Olsen who provides the heartbeat in the romance. She is expressive, likable and relatable and commands every scene in which she appears.
I've never been a big Zac Efron fan, but his small role is another highlight in the movie.
Liberal Arts isn't groundbreaking, but it offers a slight spin on what we've come to expect from romantic dramas. The movie is proof that you should never judge a book by its cover, or a movie by its poster.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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