It's an accepted but horrible cliché in movies -- the older guy with a much younger woman -- which probably springs from the fact that it's an attractive idea to the older male studio executives who greenlight most films. But in the new indie film Liberal Arts from writer/director/star Josh Radnor, we find something refreshing -- a man in his mid-thirties who finds himself in a moral and ethical quandary over a mutual crush on a precocious college sophomore who attends his alma mater. Watch the trailer for Liberal Arts below.
Radnor plays 35-year-old Jesse, who works in the admissions department of a New York college. To celebrate the retirement of Professor Hoberg, his favorite college professor (played by Richard Jenkins), Jesse returns to the idyllic Ohio college where he spent his happiest years falling in love with literature. There, Jesse meets Zibby (played by Elizabeth Olsen), the fresh-faced 19-year-old daughter of some of Professor Hoberg's friends. There's an immediate chemistry between the two, which deepens via a series of handwritten letters after Jesse returns to New York as Zibby introduces Jesse to a mix CD of classical music she made for him while Jesse advises her on the best books to read while advising her on the post-college world she'll face.
Against his better judgment, Jesse returns to his school to see Zibby and hopefully recreate the carefree, intellectually stimulating years of his youth before the realities of the real world wore him down. But through his interactions with a troubled student (played by John Magaro), a former literature professor Jesse had a crush on (played by Allison Janney), and the realities of the sixteen-year age difference between he and Zibby, it becomes clear that being on campus and a college-age girlfriend can't undo the person he's become since graduation. But though conversations with a hippyish student (played by Zac Efron), Jesse also learns that there are aspects of his college mindset that he can and should protect from the creeping cynicism of adulthood.
Liberal Arts is Radnor's second film after the decent but underperforming Happythankyoumoreplease, where the characters' habit of earnestly and over-eloquently saying exactly what they were thinking at all times definitely made it feel like a first film. In contrast, Liberal Arts feels more mature, poignant, and real, which is helped by great performances by Jenkins, Janney, and especially Olsen, who perfectly evokes the enthusiasm of a smart girl who wants to grow up fast but refuses to condemn the guilty pleasures of her own generation, like the vampire romance novels that make Jesse's moral, intellectual, and literary sensibilities curdle.
Over the past decade or so, American comedies have been overrun by juvenile man-boys who refuse to grow up. But recently, I've detected a welcome variation of this in still-funny but more thoughtful films like Liberal Arts and Mike Birbiglia's semi-autobiographical film, Sleepwalk With Me, where both films have men who begrudgingly realize how grown up they aren't, but know they have to in a world where the role of the adult man is largely undefined. In previous generations, when people married early and gender roles were more defined, things were more clear-cut since men were usually the sole breadwinner, and being a man meant getting a job that put food on the table for their families. But these days, with men and women both earning paychecks, conventions that used to thrust people into adulthood relatively early no longer apply.
At one point in Liberal Arts, Professor Hoburg says, "Nobody feels like an adult. That's the world's dirty secret." Liberal Arts doesn't purport to know the answer to what it means to be an adult in the 21st century, but it gently yet firmly makes one thing clear -- regressing, no matter how attractive and comforting it seems, and especially with an exciting person nearly half your age, isn't a realistic option. And I'm hoping there are more to come in this burgeoning wave of movies that say that while it can be momentarily amusing, it's time for the man-boys to grow up.
Liberal Arts opens Friday, Sept. 14. For more information, go here.