Josh Radnor has thought a lot about getting older. In Liberal Arts - his second directorial effort after 2010's Happythankyoumoreplease - the How I Met Your Mother actor plays Jesse, a man who returns to his alma mater for his favourite professor's retirement, and finds himself wrapped up in the sense of hope and possibility that hangs in the air on campus. The only problem? The actual students certainly don't feel it. While he shares his rose-tinted view of his college years with sophomore student Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), she is anxious to move forward, calling herself a "19-year-old rough draft." In the story of her life, Zibby's eager to graduate and find out what the ending of this chapter looks like. As an improv student (when he asks if that's all she does all day, she responds, "There's no script. We're just making this up as we go."), her character could have been a caricature of the wide-eyed college girl. But Olsen has a maturity about her, so that when she says that she feels like she's ahead of her peers, we believe it.
This isn't a love story, but there are hints of romance. Zibby insists that they write letters to each other (read in voiceover), and she shares classical music with him. Their friendship is the focus of part of the film, but the director abruptly reminds the audience that the story is Jesse's. And so, their tame relationship gives way to his struggle to define age-appropriate behaviour. "Nobody feels like an adult," his former professor tells him. "It's the world's dirty secret." Despite its occasional detours, Liberal Arts is a cautious film about Jesse's resistance to grow up. Radnor's characters are emotional, but nothing ever gets too messy or too complicated before they back away. The older characters often speak in platitudes and try to offer guidance to the younger ones. But, as Jesse learns, sometimes you just have to live through it yourself. He has to go back before he can move forward.