Following the debut of HappyThankYouMorePlease in 2010, Josh Radnor returns to Sundance with his second directorial feature, Liberal Arts. Written by, directed by, and starring the How I Met Your Mother actor, the film co-stars Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Zac Efron, and Allison Janney. I liked the movie quite a bit; it's one of the few true crowd pleasers I've seen at the festival so far. Since it has already secured distribution, it will probably receive some sort of release (either limited or on VOD) sometime later this year.
The story centers on Jesse Fisher (Radnor), a 35-year-old who works in the admissions department of a New York university. When he returns to Ohio to speak at his former professor's (Jenkins) retirement, he meets Zibby (Olsen), a 19-year-old sophomore with whom he feels a geniuine connection. They find common ground in a love of classical music, and though Jesse heads back to New York, they continue their relationship through a series of hand-written letters. I know, I know - it all sounds so cloying and impossibly cute. And it is, but a solid script makes up for all of the cheesy montages and sometimes cliched stylistic choices. In other words, it's very much an independent film, but it's a good one.
Jesse loves being back at his alma mater, and spends time wandering through campus and soaking up the atmosphere. The film was shot at Kenyon College, Radnor's real life alma mater, and the director's affection for the location comes across in the movie. On one of his random forays across the quad, he meets Nat, a carefree hippie played by Zac Efron who encourages Jesse with all kinds of Bohemian sentiments ("be love, man!"). Efron totally steals the movie, adding a much needed comedic interlude to some of the more heady discussions you may assume would be in a film with this title. Also tossed into the mix is Dean (John Magaro), another student at the college that had a manic attack the year before and provides a point of dramatic conflict for Jesse, who takes a liking to the kid because they like the same author. It's a nice subplot handled well, given just enough time to feel like a fleshed out story that never dominates the main plotline.
Truth be told, though, this film belongs to Radnor and Olsen, both giving aggressively good performances and further cementing Olsen's status as a star on the rise. I've heard the film being compared to the works of Woody Allen, and while I think that may be a bit hyperbolic, Radnor unquestionably has a lot of talent as a writer, actor, and director. Liberal Arts is another in a long list of good films I've seen at the festival this year, but I'm still waiting to truly be blown away by a dramatic movie here. Stay tuned for more coverage as the week continues.